Susanne Luebke, director of the Lena Pope Early Learning Center in Fort Worth, says the center's new 24,000-square-foot Nature Explore Classroom will be a boon to their students' sensory development. Courtesy of Lena Pope.

Jan. 30, 2015

An early learning center in Fort Worth wants to bring nature into kids’ lives with a new 24,000 square-foot state-of-the-art outdoor classroom.

Lena Pope, a charitable agency that impacts more than 20,000 children and family members annually through counseling and education programs, opened the Nature Explore playground in November. 

Map of the Lena Pope Nature Explore Classroom. See a larger version of the map.

According to Kelsey Moline, a Nature Explore designer who helped design the outdoor venue, the Fort Worth site is one of the largest of its kind in the United States. It is also the second outdoor classroom built for the Lena Pope foundation, which in 2012, built a smaller version at Chapel Hill Academy, its charter school for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

Left, Students play on natural log steps at the Chapel Hill Academy in Fort Worth. Courtesy of

“The popularity and success of the Chapel Hill Academy Nature Explore Classroom lead to the design and creation of the outdoor classroom at the Lena Pope Early Learning Center,” said Moline. “They were able to see, first hand, how well this worked for children.”

Nature Explore is a collaborative program of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations. The organization provides design services, training and tools, based on researched and field-tested principles

To date, there are 242 built and certified Nature Explore Classrooms around the world. A dozen of those are in Texas, including sites at the Environmental Education Center in Plano, the Lawrence Homestead in Mesquite and DKH Academy in Highland Village. 

Right, a young girl plays with building materials at the Environmental Learning Center's Nature Explore Classroom in Plano.

The new Fort Worth classroom was installed as part of Lena Pope’s $10 million expansion, which includes a new 43,000-square-foot building with other green features, including energy efficient design, showers and bike racks to encourage alternative transportation and a walking trail. The outdoor space was designed for the Early Learning Center’s 6-week-old to 5-year-old population.  

Susanne Luebke, director of the Lena Pope Early Learning Center and a clinical social worker, said the Nature Explore playground has the potential to have a significant impact on the center's children, many of whom come from low-income or working poor families. 

“We have kids who are living in neighborhoods where it isn't safe to be outside,” she said. “For kids like that, a place like this where they can play and run, be safe and explore is a huge benefit and a great opportunity.” 

The outdoor space is divided into separate areas geared to different age groups, including a space for infants, toddlers, as well as pre-school age children.

The kids can play in a mud kitchen, plant seeds in a garden and create a butterfly habitat. Natural wood benches and logs provide places for climbing and crawling, making music and reading books.

Left, Kids make birdfeeders at Lena Pope Nature Explore playground in Fort Worth.

Teachers can bring in their own lessons. Meanwhile Nature Explore also offers a catalog of creative materials such as art panels, seashells and drums. 

Luebke said many children these days are starved for sensory experiences.

“We are seeing more kids who are fearful of their natural world. It can make them fearful of a lot of other things.” 

Right, kids love handling natural items, like these provided by Nature Explore.

Kids who are more in touch with the outside world are quicker to explore, better at problem solving and do better in the classroom, she said.  

That’s why it’s a “great thing” for a toddler to put their toes on grass or a preschooler to gather a pocketful of rocks. 

“I think it’s healthy,” said Luebke. “I tell parents: Your kids are going to go home really dirty some days. You're going to know they had a good day. ”

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