Child Development Center revamps playground into nature-inspired space

Wichita State’s Child Development Center (CDC) is in the process of replacing some of the old, plastic playground equipment with new, nature-based equipment mostly made of wood.

The CDC offers childcare and early child development to about 90 children of WSU faculty, staff, students and some community members. About three-quarters of the way done and with $60,000 raised so far, CDC director Jillian Hoefer expects the new playground to be finished around March or April at a cost of close to $85,000.  

While a few of the larger, plastic pieces with slides and climbing areas will remain, much of the new playground will consist of what is called a “Nature Explore” outdoor classroom.

The new equipment on the CDC playground includes a messy materials area, which allows kids to inspect and stack giant tree cookies and other items; a music area, which includes multiple xylophone-like instruments, chimes and various slap drums, and a garden area full of miniature garden tools such as rakes, hoes, and various wooden bins and boxes for planting flowers and vegetables.

“They’ve loved it,” Hoefer said. “We have seashells, animal skulls, different bugs that we’ve collected, leaves and acorns … [They] just go out there and explore in whatever way that they want to.”

A climbing area is also in the works, as well as an area for nature art, a small bike path and a wooden cabin.

The kids have particularly enjoyed the music area, Hoefer said.

As senior Dasneem Unwala picked up her daughter Umme-Kulsun from her room, her daughter exuberantly told her about how she liked playing the wind chimes.

“She absolutely loves it,” Unwala said. “She loves the musical instruments.”

Sophomore Katelyn Davis, lead teacher assistant at CDC, said the new equipment gives the kids more opportunities to use their hands and develop motor skills.

“It gives us more opportunities to help them learn different things,” Davis said.

While Davis was watching the toddlers play, almost all of them were huddled around the nature art table, touching and observing the various seashells and pinecones they laid out on the table.

Hoefer said the reason for the change in playground equipment was to work with the innovation movement initiated by President John Bardo, and also because of a big movement in the early childhood field to get kids more acquainted with nature.

Nature Explore, the collaborative program that supplies the nature-based equipment to schools, has been researching and designing nature-based classrooms since 1998. As of 2014, more than 200 classrooms around the world have become Nature Explore certified. According to a 2014 study, Nature Explore’s idea of nature-based outdoor education are linked to positive learning and developmental outcomes.

CDC will become the sixth area in Kansas to be Nature Explore certified once the project is finished around springtime.

In order to raise the money for the playgrounds, Hoefer said they submitted a proposal to the Student Government Association for a one-time allocation of funds. The proposal was not approved.

“It was then that we decided this was something that we really wanted to do, and we started saving for it,” Hoefer said.

Since 2013, Hoefer said they have accrued about $30,000 from SGA by saving up funds that usually go to playground maintenance. CDC members have collected the remaining $85,000 themselves.

“We’re trying to be the very best place in Wichita,” Hoefer said. “We’re trying to be innovative. In order to do that, we need to make sure that we’re providing our kids the best and latest things that they need to have.”