Our June 10 blog gave an overview of the beautiful outdoor classroom at St. Francis Episcopal Day School, home to students surrounded by the best that Houston has to offer (http://blog.parkersu.com/2011/06/10/the-woods-at-st-francis-episcopal-day-school). We were recently introduced to another beautiful outdoor classroom, this one home to children growing up in much different circumstances than those at St. Francis. For the small group of students attending SEARCH Homeless Services’ (“SEARCH”) House of Tiny Treasures preschool, their outdoor space could not be more important.
SEARCH is an organization in Houston that works to move individuals and families off the streets and into permanent housing. SEARCH realizes that to effectively reach that goal, they must do more than just feed and clothe those in their care. They must also help them develop important life skills, with education being primary on that list. SEARCH operates an Adult Education Center in Houston that provides basic adult education, GED preparation, case management and supportive services to 80 students annually.
SEARCH knows that, in order to truly break the cycle of homelessness in a family, the organization also must focus significant time and attention on the children. Its primary means of doing this is through its wonderful preschool program, House of Tiny Treasures (“HTT”). HTT serves up to 30 students at any one time and up to 60 students in a year. According to the SEARCH website, “The goal of … Tiny Treasures is to equip each child with the skills needed to reach his or her maximum potential and be prepared for kindergarten.”
On a very hot Friday earlier this month, we met with the preschool’s director, Mitzi Bartlett, and Kathryn Straw, Senior Development Associate at SEARCH, for a tour of HTT’s outdoor play areas. HTT, which dedicated their outdoor play spaces last July, worked with Exxon Mobile, the United Way, and Bright Beginnings to plan and bring the space to life. HTT also looked to Rusty Keeler and his Natural Playscapes philosophy (http://planetearthplayscapes.com) for their inspiration. Bartlett could not be happier with the school’s new “backyard.”
HTT’s backyard has always been an integral part to their students’ learning environment. Bartlett notes that 22 years of education experience has taught her that outdoor play teaches kids important interpersonal lessons such as how to negotiate, problem solve, and mediate disagreements. Children who either do not have access to their own play space or who spend too much time indoors with their electronic toys miss out on these important learning opportunities. Weather permitting, the preschool requires that children spend at least an hour outside every day, with additional outdoor activities scheduled throughout the year. For example, every Friday during the warmer months is Splash Day where students play with sprinklers and hoses. The school provides all its students with a towel and swimsuit of their own for these special days. Unfortunately, we visited too late in the day to get to take advantage of all the wet and cold fun on our hot Friday.
Bartlett and Keeler both believe strongly that too much play equipment such as jungle gyms and swing sets take away from a child’s ability to use his or her imagination and explore the outside world. While HTT’s original playground area had swings and other more traditional climbing equipment, the preschool decided to follow Keeler’s approach when it designed their new playscape. Other than two slides built into a small rise in the backyard, the area is free of traditional play equipment. Instead, HTT included lots of open ended play spaces such as chalk boards, sand boxes, a butterfly garden, and a musical instrument area made up of metal buckets and other everyday items.
For the majority of the kids at HTT, this backyard is the only one they have ever experienced. The garden area with its flowers, herbs and plants teaches children important lessons about where food comes from and how to care for flowers and plants. Unrushed, unorganized time outside allows the children to play and explore, to observe the clouds moving overhead and to watch the birds, bugs and lizards that frequent the area.
Bartlett even loves a particularly muddy area at the back of the playground. She notes that most parents and educators today do not want their kids to get dirty. How many of us grew up making mud pies, yet we never encourage our children to do the same? Bartlett believes that all children, and especially those who have no yard or home of their own, need to learn what it feels like to squish mud between their fingers and toes. HTT has an outdoor hose area and indoor bathing area for quick clean up.
It is very difficult to spend any amount of time with Bartlett and not walk away filled with hope that, the love, care, and opportunities the children of HTT receive each year, will make a life-changing impact on their lives. Not surprisingly, SEARCH and HTT can always use your help, whether it be in the form of your time or your donations of either money or household items. If you would like more information about SEARCH and HTT or if you would like to inquire about volunteer opportunities or the programs’ current needs, please visit their website at http://www.searchhomeless.org.
Two blogs, two schools, two very important and beautiful outdoor learning areas – we challenge you to use the example of HTT and St. Francis Episcopal Day School in your own home or school. You may not be in a position to redesign a playground, but you are in a position to challenge kids to go outside and get a little dirty. Maybe they can even make some mud pies…