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empowering children through imaginative outdoor play


Meade Mitchell

At a nationally recognized special needs school in Houston, play environments rooted in imagination are an integral part of the curriculum — and the phased addition of the Margaret Noecker Nature Center is elevating the student experience to an extraordinarily impactful new level.

Opened in 1983, The Parish School provides a supportive, experience-based curriculum for children ages 2 through 12 who have communication delays and learning differences. The school has offered an after-school program, Adventure Play, for the past five years that allows kids between 6 and 12 years old to engage in self-directed play in an environment filled with all types of materials and tools, allowing the kids to build and interact with their own custom play settings.

The Parish School’s previous Head of School, Margaret Noecker, was passionate about connecting children with nature as part of their learning and development process. In recent years, efforts have been made to create a signature outdoor learning environment in her honor known as the Margaret Noecker Nature Center.

The process began in partnership with Robin Moore and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University, which prepared a master plan for Nature Center rooted in the program’s outdoor learning environment (OLE) guidelines. For the past few years, TBG has been working closely with The Parish School to create a series of OLEs that collectively comprise the overall Margaret Noecker Nature Center. These efforts included interviews with school staff and development of a master plan for the entire site.

Known as Little Acorn Park, the first constructed OLE is for the youngest users, children up to 3 years old, and its popularity with kids of all ages has vastly exceeded expectations and created excitement for future phases. Little Acorn Park’s design is based on OLE guidelines and features approximately 10 rooms with features focused on climbing, digging, affordance and play value, among others.

Some of Little Acorn Park’s features include a mud kitchen, water play with a hand pump and runnel, deck areas serving as outdoor classrooms and reading nooks, a mini amphitheater, a teepee structure, a storage building that doubles as a playhouse, a trike track, music zone, and open lawn space. In addition, trees, plants and shrubs with seasonality, texture and distinctive character facilitate engagement with nature in a poignant manner. Plants like mimosa that react to being touched and fragrant herbs like rosemary pique the senses of smiling children.

The next phase focuses on the Oak River Exploration Zone, which is intended for 4- to 6-year-olds and features a dry creek as a primary building block. Some of Oak River’s planned features include a large hill slide, ample steppers and climbers, a mud play area, a performance stage, and posts and open-ended structural elements on which children can tie fabrics to create their own imaginative play environments, among others.

The final component, the Nature Hub, will be the centerpiece of the overall Margaret Noecker Nature Center and will further accommodate immersion with nature and imaginative play of all varieties.

Working with The Parish School through these efforts has been highly rewarding — and the manner in which the school has fully embraced the vital role of outdoor play and learning in childhood development is refreshing in this day and age. The Parish School’s focus on responsible risk taking through hands-on learning and self-guided play in stimulating settings serves as a vibrant model for schools throughout the country.