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St. John’s creating an Outdoor Learning Center

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY – St. John’s Lutheran Church is replacing its playground with an Outdoor Learning Center for its Child Development Center.

The OLE will replace the traditional playground with trees, rocks, streams, gardens, water play, and a  lawn. The design eliminates static structures and rubberized mats with the goal of no longer taking the child out of a natural environment

The OLE is a joint venture of the development center, the Catawba College Center for the Environment, and the N.C. State Natural Learning Initiative. Teachers are being trained in “outdoor learning,” and volunteers will help manage raised garden areas.

The park is across the street from Bell Tower Green.

The project will provide space for outdoor classrooms, natural sensory play, and sand and water play. Kids will get the chance to grow produce, learn about animal habitats, and access timber decks and paths.

Outdoor learning environments are “designed to promote health by increasing physical activity, healthy eating, and positive social interactions. Exposure to nature has many beneficial effects, including boosting young immune systems and protecting children from onset of allergies,” according to the NLI.

The NLI’s research demonstrates benefits to children through outdoor play. Outdoor play can enhance problem-solving, academics, help students pay attention and reduce stress.

The initiative maintains a host of activities and education material on the outdoors

NLI’s “Why Naturalize Outdoor Learning Environments” also notes improvements in creativity, problem-solving skills, overall academics, reduced attention deficit disorder symptoms, and reduced stress.

The NLI also maintains activity resources and guides for creating natural play areas.

“Our new Outdoor Learning Environment is a beautiful reminder that good stewardship begins outdoors,” Pastor Rhodes Woolly said in a statement. “The challenge is that fewer and fewer kids have ready access to the great outdoors. The OLE will give each of our students the chance to fully engage with nature on a daily basis. We can’t wait.”

Amy Ritchie, who chaired the project for the church, said each learning center within the park will be age appropriate, and the play items within them will encourage kids to use their senses, explore and make discoveries in the environment.

Ritchie said there was a committee formed out of staff, parents, teachers and members to decide how to renovate the area after 20 years of service. After visiting similar parks in the state, the committee decided this was the way to change the area.

There are about 170 children who visit the park every day, and Ritchie said the goal was to turn it into their own natural oasis. Students who may not have access to yards will get exposure to nature through the new park as well.

“Instead of going to the traditional playground to climb on a plastic slide, we felt like our children needed to get back to learning about nature,” Ritchie said. “Parents are very excited.”

Ritchie said the bright colors, plastics, and rubber surfaces used to be state of the art, but times change.

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