Photo Credit: Nature Explore
Aug 08
August 8, 2014

Nancy Rosenow

Executive Director, Dimensions Foundation/Nature Explore

How Outdoor Classrooms are Empowering Vulnerable Children and Families


Four-year-old Maria is growing up in a crowded apartment and her “bedroom” is a blanket in the corner of a busy room. Life for Maria is often difficult, and last year, the teachers in her childcare program said she frequently lashed out at other children.

Today, however, something new has come into Maria’s life and things have changed dramatically for her. Through the help of generous funders, Maria’s childcare program was able to work with Nature Explore—a joint program by two nonprofits, the Dimensions Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation—to build a wonder-filled natural outdoor classroom. The comprehensive approach to supporting children’s healthy development, namely their creativity and resiliency, includes workshops for educators and families on how to use the space to enhance children's learning.

Now Maria spends time gardening, playing the wooden marimba, building with open-ended natural materials, exploring science experiments, and creating art. She especially loves to sketch pictures of nature. “When I study the flowers in the garden,” she told her teachers, “then I know everything is going to be ok. I have my own special place.” Maria’s teachers report that behavioral issues among all the children have decreased dramatically, family involvement has greatly increased, and teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time high.

Maria’s teachers report that behavioral issues among all the children have decreased dramatically, family involvement has greatly increased, and teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time high.

Maria’s story is one of many who will be helped through our 2014 CGI Commitment to Action to create at least 10 more Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms for childcare centers serving vulnerable children, as well as domestic violence and homeless shelters. The program expansion will also include a major research study, carried out by the Outdoor Classroom Project/Caltech and the University of Wisconsin, to codify data assessing the efficacy of natural outdoor classrooms in empowering children and families.

The time I spent at CGI America 2014 left me inspired, energized, and connected to new and exciting program partners. By collaborating with fellow attendees such as Yasmina Vinci of the National Head Start Association, we were able to include four of the new Nature Explore Classrooms in select Head Start programs that she supports.

After presenting our Commitment to Action in the Early Childhood Education Working Group, I invited my fellow participants to visit a Nature Explore Classroom in Denver. Many of them were able to see the healing power of nature at work at Warren Village, a preschool program in a housing unit that supports families transitioning from homelessness. Warren Village’s Nature Explore Classroom was made possible through funding from the U.S. Forest Service, which offered to help fund another outdoor classroom in Warren Village's infant and toddler program if supplemental funding could be secured. I am happy to report that now, because of our CGI commitment, that new funding has been obtained and work will soon begin on another transformational space for children.


As the CGI America Meeting kicked off with the Opening Plenary Session, I was thrilled to hear how much of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s speech focused on the importance of early childhood education. And as I later listened to the commitments by fellow Working Group participants, my admiration for the incredible, life-enhancing work being carried out on behalf of children and families soared.


In June of 2014, President Clinton, Secretary Clinton, and Chelsea Clinton hosted the fourth meeting of CGI America, an annual event focused on finding solutions that promote economic recovery in the United States. For more information, visit