Narrative to the Concept Plan provided by Brian Leaders, ASLA, and Julie Rose, Educator
This narrative provides brief descriptions of each of the areas in the plan.

Entry Feature

Located south of the walking trail is the Entry Feature that welcomes children and the Near South community into the Nature Explore Classroom. The Entry Feature can be a simple or a more elaborate structure. We recommend a contextual arbor, which would be attractive and fit well in the space. It should be wood or metal and could possibly reflect the beautiful architecture found throughout Prescott Elementary School. It can be purchased or hand crafted. It should be about 7’ high, 5’to 6’ wide to cross over the entry path, and be at least 2’-2.5’ deep. For a ready-made entry feature, check out Vines could be planted to grow up and through it. Potted plants could also be added to soften and define the entry and direct flow from the building to the Entry Feature.

Pizza pavers make wonderful flooring and also add character as each class may create their own paver. The history of Prescott School can easily be displayed in the pavers. The 250 square feet of ground surface could also be stamped concrete with beautiful images of leaves and seedpods found in your area. Children are encouraged to develop close observation skills by looking for patterns in nature. Animal footprints that are native to your region may also be incorporated in the concrete. These native components help tell the unique story of Prescott School and the Near South Neighborhood. Located in the middle of the stamped concrete could be a nautical symbol representing directionality. Next to the entry space could be a display board where information about the outdoor classroom is posted. This is also where the sign designating the site as a certified Nature Explore Classroom will be displayed. Another use for the display board could be to post children’s drawings of birds recently spotted in the space, or children’s photographs or drawings calling visitor’s attention to the separate areas in the outdoor classroom.

You may also like to have a laminated guide that could be placed in a built-in shelf on the arbor. Community members may enjoy bringing their children or grandchildren to the outdoor classroom and the guide can serve as a welcoming orientation to the space.

Connecting paths throughout the outdoor classroom should be three feet to six feet wide (allowing for wider and narrower pathways) created out of accessible material such as engineered wood fiber, Fibar, Zeagar (brand name). It is comprised of larger and smaller pieces of mulch that knit together and is acknowledged as ADA accessible. It has been tested by the American Society of Testing Materials and has been treated to keep mold content down. In addition, it doesn’t decompose as quickly as regular mulch.

Think of local groups or organizations that could help you install this surfacing. This may be the perfect Eagle Scout project for students connected to your school or community.

Gathering Area

The space west of the entry is designated as a gathering area. This area is a wonderful location for teachers to gather their students to orient them to the outdoor classroom. Teachers may also choose to teach various lessons in this space. The area lends itself nicely to a beginning and an ending location while teachers gather students as they enter and exit. Five benches are located around the perimeter. Benches could be constructed from recycled trees in the area so that children can become familiar with the beauty of different varieties of wood. If timber is not available, or donors prefer to purchase benches, the Nature Explore Sourcebook offers two sizes of benches on page 30. The area could include a storage bin (page 27 in the Nature Explore Sourcebook) where a few books, laminated for outdoor use, may be stored. Suggestions for books or sections of books include: short picture books on bees and butterflies geared to younger children; short books written by children that tell the stories of the trees in the space; and laminated pages from insect or tree identification guides for older students and adults. The flooring of the gathering area is made of 500 square feet of Engineered Wood Fiber which is a type of mulch that allows for cushioning from falls as well as easy transportation for those in wheelchairs or with canes or crutches.

Open Area

This space should have natural grass surfacing. To create this open space, you will need to bring in approximately 135 cubic yards of soil. You will want to create some rolls in the surfacing. These undulated surfaces should be 4 feet above the existing ground and graduated in a foot to half foot increments. You will then want to sod these areas. It is important to keep one area of the outdoor classroom large enough to encourage large motor movement such as running, jumping, kicking balls, dancing or playing active games. You have the good fortune of having the large open space for sports outside the classroom for this purpose as well.

As a learning activity, your students could be involved in the on-going maintenance of the grass (lawn). Small sections of grass can be cordoned off and re-seeded, and students could help keep these sections watered until new grass has taken hold. (This is an optional activity.) One small section at a time can be re-grown on a rotating basis. This is another way to develop ownership. This real work becomes an opportunity for children to see themselves as caretakers of their environment.

This Open Area was created with the community in mind. Prescott School has movie night during the summer. This space will serve as an amphitheater for families to enjoy the latest offering. The suggested poles may be added if a division is favorable.

Climbing and Crawling Area

A series of five foot square platforms, built around a tree, allow children to experience the feeling of a tree house (see p. 29 in the Sourcebook for building plans for the platforms). Platforms range from 7” to a maximum of 17” in height. Heights for the platforms should be kept very low so no fall-zone surfacing is needed. Platforms can be accessed by either steps or a ramp. You will need approximately 325 square feet of platform material. Avoid pressure treated wood for deck surface. Natural woods such as cypress or cedar or recycled material such as Trex would be the preferred building materials. Also on p. 29 in the Sourcebook are pictures of vertical and horizontal pine railings that can be added to the platforms. Children can drape fabric over these railings to create and re-create “rooms” in the tree house, a valuable visual-spatial activity. These railings could also be made from interesting branches secured from local trees. Storage could be built into the platform structure if needed. Plantings are located around the perimeter of the structure.

Red Cedar Log Steppers have been added to this area (see page 25 in the Sourcebook). If you create them on your own, you will want to secure them into the ground with rebar.

At a later time, a balance beam (see page 25 in the Sourcebook) might be added to the open space north of the climbing structure. These elements are perfect for helping children balance and build body competence and body confidence. These structures are low, but should have room for a safe fall zone.

Messy Materials Area

This area, east of the Climbing and Crawling Area, has a large ground level 120 square foot deck perfect for that larger building project that may go along with a unit of study in math or science. This area should also include sections of cut trees (“tree cookies”) and small pieces of branches for children to manipulate. See if a local forester or arborist can provide you with tree cookies and trunk sections for building. (See pages 4, 12 and 13 in the Learning With Nature Idea Book and pg. 28 in the Resource Guide/Sourcebook for ideas.)

A Messy Materials area is important for children as they have little opportunity to “be messy” in today’s aseptic environment. This area encourages a safe place where children may interact with dirt, pine needles, pine cones, tree cookies, leaves, branches and stumps. This interaction allows total uninhibited creative play and imagination. It also provides the opportunity for personal mastery over the environment as they manipulate heavy objects and move them through space. In addition, children with sensory integration challenges excel in this area as they gain self-control and relaxation as they are given opportunities to use large muscles to dig and carry heavy objects.

Building Areas

Building Area A:

Building Area A, located in the far east corner of the outdoor classroom is shown with “tree cookie” flooring to enhance the natural feel of your outdoor classroom as well as give students a flat, level place to play and build. You will need enough tree cookies to cover 325 square feet. We have specified the red cedar tree cookies from the Sourcebook…they average 8” to 10” in diameter and come in packages of 16. Each case will cover a minimum of 10 sq. ft. We suggest 33 packages. (See page 28 in the Sourcebook.) These red cedar tree cookies should be installed in a mortar of polymer/concrete blend (not included with the tree cookie order). (We recommend Techni-Seal Polymeric Sand. Each bag of Techni Seal will fill 20 to 40 square feet depending on distance apart and depth in-between cookies.) Directions for installation are available on the Sourcebook section of the web site at

Please note that the Tree Cookies in the Sourcebook have been dried for durability and stability. (If using locally provided cedar tree cookies, be advised that these need to be dried for a period of time before they are installed.) A smooth cedar Discovery Table (page 24 in the Sourcebook) will be in this area to provide an accessible raised area for building, but children can also build on the tree cookie flooring. The organic Tree Blocks (see page 21 in the Sourcebook) are recommended for this area, making a great visual connection with the blocks and the flooring. A wooden storage unit (marked with an “S”) is included in this space so the building materials are readily accessible. This storage area can be simple, hand-crafted open “cubbies” with slits between the shelf and the back of the cabinet for drainage (see page 20 in the Learning With Nature Idea Book) OR you can select a storage unit that latches open during the day and can be closed at night (see page 27 in the Sourcebook). An easel, although not specified in the plan, allows children an opportunity to draw in 2 dimensions what they have just built in 3 dimensions…a great visual spatial activity.

Building Area B:

Building Area B, located north of Building Area A provides a second building area for children. The plan shows flooring for this space to be 350 square feet of coursed or modular paving with the addition of a simple 168 square foot ground-level deck built with regular dimensional lumber. (Consider Trex decking or precast concrete pavers) Both options provide a more structural look to the space that differentiates it from the more organic-styled Building Area A. The mini-bricks and/or geometric blocks made from a variety of types of woods (page 21 in the Sourcebook) can be used in this area. A Discovery Table (page 24 in the Sourcebook) is in this area to provide an accessible raised area for building, but children can build on the flooring as well. A storage unit is included in this space so the building materials are readily accessible (see storage unit description in Building Area A).

Nature Art Area

The Nature Art Area is located at the southeast corner of the space. Local flag stone (approximately 1200 square feet) should be placed as flooring in this area. Each stone should be approximately 11x17 in order to serve as a palette for individual students. Stones that have colorful venation or fossils in the rock are beautiful and allow opportunities for lessons. They can also work for painting with water and watching evaporation…or for stone rubbings to reveal interesting patterns. The plan shows two Nature Art Tables (see page 24 of the Resource Guide/Sourcebook). The Nature Art tables contain pockets that can hold a variety of natural materials such as pine cones, seed pods, acorns, etc. that can be used to create patterns and mosaics as temporary works of art. Easels or art panels for painting could be hung on the fence…adding an additional art experience. Extra storage for extra natural materials and for other art supplies such as paper, colored pencils, oil pastels, twigs for picture frames, and colored modeling clay will be in the Art Area. We suggest a closeable, lockable storage unit for this area (see page 27 in the Sourcebook). The Art Area should be bordered by diverse plants. You might consider painting the storage doors with a nature themed mural. Also include laminated color photocopies of environmental art from Andy Goldsworthy books such as Wood. Laminated photos of famous artists’ paintings and drawings of flowers, trees or butterflies could be mounted on the storage cabinets for inspiration (or stored on shelves in the storage cabinets). It was also suggested to include a vertical art panel in the area for use as an easel or for display purposes.

Collect natural materials (such as seed pods and acorns) in the fall for later use. Buckets of seeds collected in the fall can be sealed and stored outside. The cold winter will help kill any insects in the seeds.

A Plexiglas wall may be placed centrally in this area. Washable markers and dry-erase markers can be used on the Plexiglas.

The children may sit on the floor and sketch the bark of the tree or insects crawling along the tree. They may also practice writing their letters or numbers or even write stories about the animals and insects that live in the Nature Explore Classroom.

Music and Movement Area

Three items are indicated in this area: a marimba; (page 23 in the Sourcebook); a shared storage unit (page 27 in the Sourcebook) for holding scarves and smaller instruments like rain sticks or other natural instruments such as seed pods, gourds etc. (see page 24 in the Sourcebook); and a stage (very low off the ground), made of cypress or recycled Trex. Note: The stage could have curved edges as shown in the concept sketch with a small 8” step that expands over the front of the stage for additional seating. The stage is created so that the back of the stage also serves as a ramp flush with the ground, allowing for accessibility. The materials for the performance stage are 80 square feet of smooth cedar or Trex-like biocomposite.

Note for consideration: wooden storage units can be purchased or hand made from local materials and should take into consideration your desire for locking mechanism to ensure materials stay in the location.

Paths Through Plantings

The pathway is located east of the Open Area of the Outdoor classroom and winds behind the Climbing and Crawling Area which provides a “behind the scenes” feel for children discovering in the outdoor classroom. The flooring consists of engineered wood fiber and the path varies in width as it winds throughout the classroom. Plant material may consist of varying colors, textures, heights, scents and tastes. Visually porous or open headed plants such as ornamental grasses and woody plants aid visibility and therefore increase safety. It is important for the pathway to create a multi-sensory experience where children can taste, smell, touch, see and hear different plants. It works well placing different plants together such as placing herbs with sunflowers, vegetables and fruits. A pollinator section may also be added to attract butterflies, bees and other natural pollinators. Varied textures, shapes and patterns, bloom time and color should be added. Some of the plants or native grasses chosen for the pathway should have some height to them so that they create a “Secret Garden” sense for children walking the paths. (See pollinator garden information by visiting Christina Hoyt at The Statewide Arboretum is a wonderful resource as she will counsel you on what plants to place in your outdoor classroom.

One section of the pathway should be a pollinator area to bring butterflies close by. Here is a great link with information about pollinator gardens ( Children love to travel multiple routes and mapping their paths is a wonderful visual spatial activity. Bird feeders (see page 31 in the Nature Explore Sourcebook) could also be placed along these paths. Include plantings that have a variety of texture, patterns (such as stars and hearts), color and bloom time. One key consideration as you are planning for plantings is to keep children visible at all times. Natural stone pavers may be included in the pathway or pavers that are created by students. The recipe for pizza pavers can be found in the Nature Explore Classroom Implementation Guide. The more students and teachers have an imprint on the outdoor classroom, the more the level of ownership increases.

In addition, you have the opportunity to allow for gardening in this area with accessible in ground space. Make sure the soil is augmented so that is will be very easy for students to dig and plant.


In the center of this space is a natural willow hut. Willows can be harvested when they are dormant in the early spring, stuck into the ground, and lashed together to form charming “huts” that leaf out during the summer, creating “secret garden” areas. We suggest using Salix viminalis, or “basket willow” for this project. It should be available in your area. Willows need to have their “feet” wet to get established. More details can be found at:

Supplemental Areas

Dirt Digging Area:

The digging area (approximately 450 square feet) includes three raised planter beds filled with dirt, plant materials and worms that may be used for digging or planting (Nature Explore Sourcebook, page 27.) It is important to remember that the worms need to be fed in order to survive. The children may participate in feeding them by putting raw fruits, vegetables, dead headed flowers and peat soil into the raised beds. Tools for digging (page 26 in the Nature Explore Sourcebook) could be stored in a shared storage unit by the Gathering Area. The flooring of the Dirt Digging Area should consist of dark brown mulch that comes from the same type of trees, if possible. Remember to stay away from mulch that comes from trees with thorns or from trees that were deceased due to beetles or viruses or contained poison ivy. If the tree was recently cut and chipped into mulch, it needs to sit for approximately a year or until the green color of the wood has changed to brown. Children can be involved in planning for these planter beds. They can help look through seed catalogs to find flowers or vegetables of interest. Plants that attract butterflies could also be chosen for planting at the perimeter of the space so that as children explore the garden they can observe butterflies at close range. (Families can be involved in this planning each year as well.)

Sand Area:

An L-shaped wooden planter box (approximately 50 square feet) can be filled with sand. If desired, seashells, fossils, rocks or other interesting materials could be added so children can try to find the “buried treasure.” A shared storage unit built into the Climbing and Crawling Area would work well for the sand instruments.

A place keeper for the water feature located in the Sand Area is a hand-pumped re-circulating water feature, currently under development by Dimensions Foundation. The web site ( will have information when this item is available. Or you may have someone who can make something unique for you. This is a supplemental area that could be installed during initial construction or added later. The floor surfacing (approximately 200 square feet) can be a shallow layer of wood chips. A storage space can be placed here for natural materials used for altering water flow and testing for sinking/floating.

Wheeled Toy Area:

Surrounded by plant materials, located outside the outdoor classroom is the wheeled-toy track. This should be a hard, all-weather surfaced path. It is designed as an enclosed loop. Keep the width to about 3 feet to allow for a one way pattern. Include some texture into the path for an added sensory component. Pots or low berms with plantings can be added around the inside of the track so children can ride by beautiful shrubs or flowers. If you wish, a wooden arbor or willow hoops could be built over a section of the track for children to ride under. A storage area for wheeled toys is also shown in the plan (marked with an S).

Rain Garden:

You have the opportunity to install a rain garden in the outdoor classroom. Visit to find out more information on creating a rain garden.


Willow fencing could also be used around some of the space if desired and is indicated. This willow fencing easily attaches to the already existing chain link fence. This could be incorporated along the east side of the outdoor classroom. The natural enhancement of this space will help serve as a demonstration to the community about the importance of creating nurturing outdoor spaces for children.

Paver 05Pizza Pavers: (see Entry Feature page 1)


A Note about Plant Materials:

The divisions between areas will often be provided by low plant materials (chosen as much as possible for their ability to attract pollinators). This, in effect, helps the entire space to serve as a pollinator garden. The more diversity in the choices of plant materials, the more educational value for children. Varieties of textures, colors and shapes in the plants provide opportunities for texture or color scavenger hunts, etc. Looking for patterns in nature such as stars and hearts will help to focus children’s observation skills.

The planting areas should be bed prepped with soil amendments and mulched. You can plant a mix of perennials, native or ornamental grasses, and ground cover. Not every square inch needs to be planted at first – leave some small areas for future planting.

The variety of trees in the space will provide opportunities for children to learn the stories of the trees in this region. A number of engaging educations experiences can be built around these trees. On the plan, if a tree is labeled with a dot in the center that means it is an existing tree. All other trees shown by a circle with a plus (+) are trees or shrubs that will need to be planted. The diameter of the circle represents the size of the mature tree canopy. Small circles represent shrubs.

A Note about Signage:

Photos of the children using the space in positive ways should be taken, laminated and posted in areas. For example, a photo of children building could be posted on the storage cabinet in the Building Area, or a photo of one of the mosaics created in the Nature Art Area could be posted. See pages 14 and 27 in the Learning With Nature Idea Book for examples of these photo signs.

Children could also be enlisted to create signs that label trees or plants throughout the space. Signs could contain both children’s drawings and writing. The creation of these signs could become a yearly event so that the signs change frequently. (Or some could stay longer and others, such as in the raised planter beds, could change seasonally.)

A Note about Maintenance:

Plants have been chosen to require as little maintenance as possible. Plants are becoming established during the first year, they will require more care, but once established will need little or no special watering. The “loose” materials in each activity area can be stored in cabinets that can be latched open during the day and locked at night. During times where there is high visitation someone will be needed to open and close these each day. However, since none of the materials stored in the cabinets is of much monetary value, the decision may be made to leave these open all the time as some groups have decided to do. The marimba should be permanently installed in concrete.

The location of the maintenance access has been incorporated into the concept plan; it is accessible for equipment either at the Entry Area or located off the sidewalk on the southwest side of the classroom. Make sure and plan for this location so that equipment can easily be brought in to replenish the Messy Materials area or to allow for the mowers. Don’t forget to allow for the width of the equipment.

A Note about Surfacing:

Each area has a recommended surfacing. We suggest “Fibar” or similar brand of engineered wood fiber mulch for the accessible paths through the space.

You may wish to include some “Pizza Pavers.” (See photo above) Pizza Pavers could be used to further define the entry space or used in other areas that need surfacing or interesting temporary pathways. Families could be enlisted to help create these “pavers”. They could be created as part of a family involvement activity and could be changed as desired, as new families choose to create new designs).

A Sampling of Ideas for Engaging Children in the Nature Explore Classroom

In addition to the excellent programming Prescott School already provides, the following may also be considered:

Educational programming for younger children:

Sketching: Encourage close observation skills by asking children to sketch the most beautiful flower or tree they can find.

Photography: Give students Polaroid cameras (available through a grant program) and ask them to take close-up photos of beautiful details, or to photograph trees, etc. from unusual perspectives.

Map-making: Encourage children to walk the pathway through plantings then draw a map of their walk. Or, encourage children to map the entire space.

Music-making and dancing: Encourage children to create “bee” music on the marimba, or to create a “tree dance” and move like the trees in the space.

Group Challenges: Example: Demonstrating the life-cycle of butterflies in multiple ways. Students could be divided into three groups – one in the Building Area, one in the Nature Art Area, and one in the Music and Movement Area. Each group could be asked to demonstrate the life-cycle of a butterfly by either creating a group building project out of blocks, a group art project out of clay, or a group dance/and or song.

Planting Plans: Students could create planting plans each year for the raised planter beds and/or the pathways through plantings and write about why they chose the particular plants, flowers or vegetables for their plans.

Writing Stories: Students could write the “stories” of each of the trees in the space. This could be done as both non-fiction and fiction exercises. These stories could be laminated to create outdoor books that visitors or younger students could enjoy.

NOTE: There are “Nature Explore Club” materials for educators (and for families and groups) that could be used in your space that you might find helpful. You received the Families Club with the Implementation Guide. There are also a series of workshops that give ideas for using the Nature Explore Classroom and supporting children’s learning with nature.

Ideas for special events for community members and outside visitors:
- Performances by dance groups

- Performances by a variety of musicians

- Mini Farmers’ Markets (with produce grown in the space)

- Nature Art shows with displays of art created by both children and local adult artists

- Have a local artisan paint a mural on the building that is representative of the Near South Community.

Certifying Your Classroom

You become part of a growing network of schools and organizations working to re-connect children with nature. When your outdoor classroom becomes certified, the Dimensions Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation will send a press release to your local media to help you gain additional community recognition and support. Once certified, you will receive a Nature Explore Classroom sign, which you can post to publicly recognize your commitment, and to encourage others to create similar spaces in their own programs. Nature Explore Classroom Certification recognizes outdoor learning spaces that meet the three-certification standards presented within the Learning With Nature Idea Book:

  • Well designed outdoor spaces
  • Staff Development
  • Family Involvement

Visit or call 1-888-908-8733. Applications can be downloaded and submitted with documentation that the standards have been met.