For some students at Bakersfield College’s Child Development Center, the outside world is now their classroom.
Thanks to funding from the Community Action Partnership of Kern, the center opened its first outdoor classroom in June, the first classroom of its kind in Bakersfield. Second-graders get to spend up to two hours a day outside in a fenced-in, playground-like area.
The classroom includes a reading area, a gardening area, swings, a slide, a track for riding tricycles, musical instruments, painting as well as a water feature that the kids can play with. The classroom was funded through a $150,000 grant from CAPK’s Head Start program.
“The notion is that young children learn best by doing, by using all of their senses and experiencing things,” said center Director Sue Vaughn. “When they select what activity they’re going to do and pursue their own interests, they’re more engaged.”
Yolanda Gonzales, director of CAPK’s Head Start program, said the organization believes learning in a natural environment helps the children.
“The idea of providing natural environments in all of our play areas comes from the importance of giving children the opportunity to be surrounded by nature,” she said. “Outdoor natural environments provide hands-on opportunities to teach children to care about other people, living things and their environments. Outdoor play also gives children a sense of peace and freedom that they cannot necessarily find indoors.”
Vaughn said being outside makes the kids more active and helps with their physical development.
The majority of children at the center are those of students who are attending classes at BC. Children up to age 5 are eligible for care at the center.
“These parents don’t have a lot of money. They probably don’t live in big houses with big yards,” she said. “These kids probably don’t get much outdoor time, so just the fact that they’re getting outdoor time is valuable in and of itself. The fact that they can be out and be physical makes for a better experience.”
Vaughn said she’s also noticed that the children are more apt to do things together outside and socialize with one another than they typically do when they’re inside.
Vaughn said the center began looking into the possibility of a outdoor classroom after seeing it being done at some preschools in Los Angeles. She said it has taken time to secure funding for the center’s own classroom.
“The college is a bureaucracy. The (Kern Community College District) is a bureaucracy. CAPK is a bureaucracy, so cutting through all the red tape to make things happen took a lot of time and skill,” she said.
After seeing that the center’s students are enjoying the new classroom, Vaughn said the plan is to eventually convert each age’s individual playgrounds to outdoor classrooms within the next three or four years.
The center has already begun some early work on an outdoor classroom for its toddler students. That’s expected to be finished sometime later this year.
Vaughn said funding for the classrooms hasn’t been settled yet. The center is using some money from its budget to pay for work on the next classroom, but she said at least another $150,000 in outside funding will be needed to complete the projects.
“Because the funding’s not in place yet, we’re planning to convert our other playgrounds to outdoor classrooms gradually,” she said.
While some staff have already received outdoor classroom training, Vaughn said the plan is to have more training sessions in the future to prepare for the planned expansion of outdoor classrooms.