On a brisk but sunny spring morning, more than a dozen pre-kindergarteners file out of the imposing red brick building that is Clark Elementary and seat themselves, excitedly, on the sidewalk in front of the school’s garden. Sarah Harris greets them with a big smile. “Hello, my friends!” she calls.
Harris is the early childhood program director at Wildrock, a nonprofit that promotes nature play and operates a 28-acre nature area, tucked into the Blue Ridge foothills about 40 minutes outside of Charlottesville. While school and community groups have been visiting Wildrock’s outdoor playscape since the moment it opened in 2017, the organization has more recently expanded its community outreach efforts, including into city schools.
“It’s important to have that daily connection with nature in urban settings as well,” says Wildrock founder Carolyn Schuyler.
For the Nature Friends program, which started last year, Harris and volunteers visit all the city’s public preschools four times a year, in addition to hosting two field trips at Wildrock. It’s a way for kids to experience imaginative outdoor play in their own school green spaces, Schuyler says.
Clark, where 82 percent of students come from low-income families, has a lovely garden now in full bloom, and Harris invites the children to look at the “beautiful view” as they wait patiently through a school fire drill.
“Wow,” one girl says softly. A moment later, a boy spots a bird in a nearby tree, and points excitedly, trying to show Harris his discovery while following the school rule of no talking during a fire drill. “That’s a robin?” he whispers. “Yes, that’s a robin,” she smiles back.
After the fire drill and a picture book (Stories from the Bug Garden), the teachers arrange the children into orderly lines to move the few feet to the play areas. “Calm your body!” the teaching assistant directs one squirmy child. “Stop being extra, just walk!” she tells another.
Finally, it is time to play. There are “sensory bins” loaded with dried beans (“We’re going to pretend it’s dirt,” Harris says) with tiny metal buckets and shovels for scooping and dumping, and small wooden flowers, made of felt and thread spools, to plant. On a blanket in the grass, Harris is helping kids select twigs and tall grasses to build a “bug hotel” to keep bugs safe from predators. And in a small nook in the garden, where a group of tree stumps is arranged like chairs around a table, Harris has placed a tiny set of pots and pans, some stuffed animals, and some plastic frames that can be made into forts with pieces of cloth and clips.
“Hey, that’s my house!” one girl cries indignantly, as a boy ducks into her fort. “He’s going to take my stuff!”
Nature Friends volunteer Dolly Johnson, who taught preschool for 30 years at St. Anne’s, intervenes. “A friend can help you build,” she suggests, and soon the two children are clipping a fourth wall onto their fort and playing happily inside.
“We’re having a family picnic!” the girl cries a few minutes later, emerging to prepare some food at the tree stump. She adds some green leaves to a pot. “Look, I made a salad!”
This kind of free play—where children make their own rules and negotiate roles—is vital to kids’ development, and it’s part of the point of Nature Friends. But Schuyler knows the need for play isn’t limited to preschoolers. When school groups visit the organization’s outdoor playscape, she says, “So many kids have not had all the play that they need, even kids that are 15 [or] 16 will ask if they can play, and go do it. It’s really wonderful to watch.”
Wildrock is now partnering with the city schools to work with kids of all ages. At Clark, it’s piloting another program, called Nature Play Lab, that the organization hopes to expand to all the city’s elementary schools as well as Walker and Buford. Like Nature Friends, it’s a way to support free play outdoors, but for older students.
Wildrock installed a shed that can be used as a play space, and is stocked with things like capes, animal masks, pots and pans, and wooden blocks cut from tree stumps. “It’s a scaffolding for imaginative play that doesn’t happen so much anymore,” Schuyler says. And the program trains teachers in how to facilitate play, and connect it with social-emotional skills.
“This is how we segue from just going out to the Wildrock facility to also having those experiences right at the school,” says Patrick Farrell, intervention and support coordinator at Charlottesville City Schools. And he says the response to all of Wildrock’s programs has been “nothing but raves.”
That’s certainly the case at Clark. As the Nature Friends session wraps up, a girl in a Hello Kitty sweatshirt bounces on her toes and asks if they can play more. And the teaching assistant tilts her face up to the spring sun. “I wish we could stay outside,” she says.