New Child Development Center learning lab brings children outside

Cindy Deng

The Kent State Child Development Center’s (CDC) playground is evolving day-by-day right before the children’s eyes.

The CDC, an on-campus laboratory school off of Loop Road for toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners, is constructing an outdoor learning lab out of its playground. Pam Hutchins, coordinator of the Children’s Programs at the CDC, said each of the new structural additions is used to help children develop in a more natural setting.

“Children don’t have the opportunity to be outside like they used to,” Hutchins said. “We really wanted to have an environment that mimics the natural environment, which we know is better for children than a prescribed environment.”

Before implementing the space, the CDC faculty and administration had done numerous studies observing their children on the old playground, said Hutchins. From their own studies, they said they know that the children think, act and speak differently when they are in natural environments.

“We have done a tremendous amount of reading and research in the area of outdoor education for children and offering natural landscapes for them,” Hutchins said. “Everything was planned and designed to get back to the teachers to say, ‘Is this really what we want?’ So, this outdoor learning lab is our interpretation of what the children said.”

So the administration, faculty, and architects from the Office of the University Architect worked together to provide a natural experience for the children to explore their ideas, perception and senses in an unrestricted environment.

Hutchins said some of the additions and renovations made to the outdoor area were:

  • Extended bike path: The original bike path went straight down and back. With this extension, children can now ride around the playground.
  • Sand and Gravel pit: Children can explore and mix materials from the gravel to the sand pit and vice versa.
  • Dry riverbed with a water pump: With this, children can control the water flow. Hutchins said this, especially, supports cognitive development because it helps the children understand cause and effect.
  • A lot of different textures (i.e. concrete paths, mulch, pebbly concrete paths): The different feeling of each texture helps stimulate the senses.
  • Stepping stumps: Children can explore and climb on top of the stepping stumps, which enhances their motor abilities.
  • Outdoor art studio: Children can get a view of nature outside and explore different material outsides.
  • Small amphitheater with seating: Children will use this to put on plays.
  • Open field area: This area would be used for group games and sports.
  • Expanded garden: The garden now has beds for an herb garden, a beanpole garden and a sunflower garden. The garden also has a butterfly garden for children to observe, as well as a mud kitchen to make mud pies. Hutchins said the children now have easy access to water serving the purpose of carrying for one’s own environment. All of these components were added to stimulate the senses.

“Children are glued to the window watching,” said Brian Pickering, project manager at the Office of the University Architect. “They want to know what every contractor is doing and what’s coming next. It’s really neat to see.”

Terri Cardy, classroom lead teacher, said the CDC plans to conduct a comparative study in the fall when the outdoor learning lab is finished by the end of summer. If the research is significant, the CDC plans to share best practices and publish their work, according Monica Marsh, director of Pedagogy and Research.

“We’re looking at not just keeping it [the research] here,” Marsh said. “We’re going to share it to the larger, childhood education community about how children are responding to the outdoors and all of the wonderful things we have to offer.”

Although the University awarded about $500,000 for the outdoor learning lab, not everything that the CDC envisioned could be implemented this year. The CDC needs an additional $166,150 to complete all proposed projects, according to Hutchins.

“The children have been watching the construction out the window and has seen the entire structures being built, so that of course gets me very excited,” Cardy said. “Every time I walk out there with the teachers, we both say ‘we can’t believe this is happening. It’s so exciting.’”

Contact Cindy Deng at [email protected].