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New Outdoor Classroom Lets Mother Nature be the Teacher

Play Groups School spent three years developing its new outdoor classroom.

A local preschool has introduced a new teacher to its students – Mother Nature.

in East Setauket on Saturday celebrated the grand opening of its new outdoor classroom. Muddy shoes, paint-stained fingers, and smiling faces were signs of approval at the classroom, which is spread across a half acre of land at the school.

“Rather than looking at a worm in a textbook, they can turn over a rock or a log and see a real one,” said the program's creator, Maggie Holland.

The classroom has 12 different stations, including a messy materials area where kids can make mud pies, unearth rocks, and otherwise get their hands dirty. Other stations include a tricycle track, a water sifting area, garden, overlook, performance stage, and arts and crafts station that uses natural materials. 

“It’s great. The kids love it, and it's much better to be in the real environment, not sitting at a desk,” said Joe Agnese, who has a 3-year-old in the school.

The school spent three years developing the outdoor classroom in conjunction with the Long Island Nature Collaborative for Kids (LINCK), a group that promotes outdoor learning. Trish Manzi, director of LINCK, said teaching children outdoors has positive effects on their learning and behavior. 

"The more children connect with nature, the better their development: their cognitive development, their physical development, their social development," she said.

Holland agreed.

“We find that the children are calmer, they pay better attention, they share more, and they’re happier," Holland said. "The teachers are happier, too. It's good for everyone to get outside."

The project was inspired by the discovery of a red-tail hawk’s nest behind the school six years ago. As the children’s interest in the bird watching curriculum grew, administrators decided to take it one step further. A garden was built in place of a fallen tree behind the school, which began the landscape for the outdoor learning center. 

The movement to get kids outdoors is not only limited to Long Island, but has been a global trend, according to business directory Kathy Rademacher. 

"This was the right way to add a dimension that was lacking," she said. 

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