Behind The Wild Place - The How and Why of an Outdoor Learning Center 
 
First, the why?
Always keenly interested in what is happening with today's families, the Museum's Board of Directors and staff became concerned several years ago as an increasing amount of research pointed to the lack of outdoor time and connection to nature that most kids in today's society have.  Over and over, the detrimental effects of this lack - this "nature deficit disorder" according to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, are impacting our children. Childhood obesity is just one of the many critical health issues facing a generation of children who spend more and more time indoors, playing video games, watching television and surfing the 'net.  

At the same time that parents are increasingly concerned about safety issues, our public outdoor spaces are becoming fewer and farther apart.  The rare times that children do spend outdoors is far more structured and less kid-directed than generations past.  Where are the pick-up baseball games or the times spent exploring the woods?  Replaced by endless soccer practices and driving to lessons of all kinds!

Thus, after hours of discussions and community dialogues, the main mission of The Wild Place became "to provide a safe and secure place for families to explore and interact with nature, to encourage children to spend active time outdoors in nature, to develop their love and appreciation for our planet, to encourage good stewardship of the earth and to foster active outdoor play that will promote a healthy lifestyle".


Now, the how?  The Planning Process
 
The Children'’s Museum applied for and was awarded a grant from a federal agency, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), to partially fund the construction and installation of the new Outdoor Learning Center. Additional funding was raised and is still being pursued from a variety of private sources including foundations, businesses and individuals.  

Subsequently the Museum contracted with COGdesign, The Community Outreach Group for Landscape Design of Waltham MA, a non-profit service organization whose mission is to provide quality landscape design to community groups.

In June of 2005, under the direction of Cogdesign, a Community Design Charette was held at the Museum. This event brought together community members, design professionals and other stakeholders who were interested in how this project could further the Museum’s educational mission by creating a fun, safe, attractive and environmentally sound green space stimulating to children and adults. 

COG designers, museum staff, board members, and community member’s brainstormed ideas for what a green space, belonging to a children'’s museum, might look like.   By the end of the workshop session, three conceptual plans were developed, with one of them ultimately being selected as the design of choice. 
The second phase of the process involved the reviewing and refining of the charette results into a new plan by a five person team of designers. The resulting plan is presented here.

Based upon the information developed at the COGdesign charette the following principals and priorities were developed for the project. It was determined that they would influence all future decisions. They were: 
  • Child-friendly
  • Educational
  • Recreational
  • Earth-friendly
  • Environmentally sound
  • Sustainable design
  • Sound horticultural principles  
A decison early on was made to feature Rising, our elephant mascot, in one of three themed gardens - The African Garden. The two other featured gardens are a Dinosaur Garden and a Bird and Butterfly Garden. The themes of the gardens would provide a rich outdoor environment which would foster a child's sense of curiosity and give them the tools and skills required to be lifelong learners and stewards of the environment.

Modern Landscaping, Inc.of North Easton, MA was chosen as the landscaping contractor, and Romancing the Woods of Woodstock, New York was selected as the building contractor for the gazebo, tree house and arbor.
 
Installation of the garden took place during September of 2006 and the rustic adirondack structures were installed in October of 2006. Museum staff spent the next few months planning educational activities and enhancements to the new outdoor space. Then, during the spring of 2007, exhibit components were installed in preparation for the Grand Opening in mid-May.

Our educational philosophy
While our local communities continue to cope with improving their MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems)  scores, children's museum's continue to stress and promote that interactive learning presents learners with real situations that they can both experience and change by their choices and actions. It is active, hands-on learning at its best and it is the heart and soul of children's musuems and outdoor environmental education.

Concepts are not learned in isolation, but experienced in real-life. Interactive learning tends to be holistic, i.e. learners are required to integrate diverse knowledge instead of focusing on isolated units of information.

According to Orion and Hofstein (1994) "science education is conducted predominantly in 3 types of learning environments: the classroom, the laboratory, and outdoors. "The outdoor environment is most neglected by teachers and curriculum developers". This is unfortunate because all outdoors is science!  L.B. Sharp author of Outside the Classroom and a historical figure in outdoor education said ""That which can be best taught inside school rooms should be there taught, and that which can be best learned through experience dealing with native materials and life situations outside the school should there be learned"."

Children want, need and deserve authentic experiences with real objects. Because they are concrete thinkers, real experiences help them to learn about their immediate world and things that are relevant to their lives. Children'’s senses are heightened during authentic experiences and lasting memories from a childhood event will help build a generation that will understand and respect the natural world that we all live in!

Generous Donors 
Without the generosity of the following corporations, foundations and individuals this project would not have been possible.  

•Institute of Museum and Library Services
•COGdesign
•Hannaford Charitable Foundation
•Hawkeye Fence
•Makepeace Neighborhood Fund
•Ronald McDonald House Charities
•SHADE Foundation
•CWB Contractors
•Doran Family Foundation
•Easton MOMS Club
•General Sandblasting
•George Ramlose Foundation
•Ramco Survey & Stakes
•Sandy & Wayne Bishop
•Waste Management
•Naomi & Walter Chucnin Foundation
•Easton Concrete & Cutting & Drilling
•Easton Lions Club
•The Local Cultural Councils of Abington, Attleboro, Berkley, Braintree, Bridgewater, Easton, Mansfield, Middleboro, Plympton, Raynham, Sharon, Stoughton, and West Bridgewater
•Ruth & Frank Riske
•Pamela Welch Associates & Land Surveyors
 
COGdesign team members
Ginnie Norman, team leader
Kath Holland
Beth Ranahan
Margery Stegman
Gabrielle Whitcombe
 
Staff Members
• Pam Borbely
• Mark Cuddy
• Karen Frick
• Steven Hill
• Steve Keohane
• Jane Rotondi
• Paula Peterson
 
 Before, During and After Photos
       
early view of siteoriginal stage
Tour of the original siteCharette team members in action
Modern Landscaping at workmoving "Rising"
installation of pathwaysSpring 2007