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City-Raised and Nature-Connected: Bringing Rich Outdoor Play Experiences to an Urban, Rooftop Classr

Nashville is a booming southern city. But even before she became the “It” city, the downtown core had a bustling metropolitan presence. Downtown commerce meant the need for downtown child care for working parents. In 1990, McKendree United Methodist Church opened a center to meet this need. But, there was a catch. The building’s footprint didn’t allow for a traditional playground. For active play, the children had daily use of a gymnasium and were allowed to use the building’s roof-top terrace, located on the 5th floor roof, once a week for waterplay. Although the connections to nature and outdoor play were significantly limited, most of the families enrolled in the program lived in suburban areas with access to backyards and parks.

As time went on and the city grew, young families flocked to the urban hub. They settled into condos and other densely populated areas mirroring the global trend where the number of people living in urban areas (3.42 billion) surpassed the number living in rural areas (3.41 billion). The concrete jungle grew and these “city kids” experienced nature less and less. In response, McKendree decided to bring nature to the city.

Collaborative fund raising efforts between the church and the early learning center netted start-up funds of $5,000. First action, add a garden.

The five raised garden beds produce food to supplement the children’s snacks and the church’s two weekly meals prepared for the homeless, while also allowing the children countless opportunities to learn about nature and science, sustainability, real food and the joy of partnering with Mother Nature.

Once the garden was well established, a team from the child care center began to think outside of the sandbox to create learning centers mimicking a classroom. This outdoor classroom approach brought art, music, construction, sensory play, gross motor development and dramatic play to the roof. A mud kitchen was built under the shade of a tree to invite creative and messy exploration. A canvas was stretched across the fence for free-style painting. Stumps and loose lumber pieces added building and climbing challenges. And, water tables dotted the roof, adding refreshing and open-ended sensory play.

This roof-top, in the heart of a concrete jungle, became alive with laughter, joy, and discovery. Children dug in dirt, found worms, fed birds, and splashed in puddles under the canopy of city skyscrapers. The transformation was so complete that in 2016, McKendree was awarded the Exemplary Outdoor Classroom Award by the Southern Early Childhood Association. In addition to the bragging rights associated with this award, a custom “Rockband” was designed and installed to offer children more music play while paying homage to “Music” City.

“Your deepest roots are in nature. No matter who you are, where you live, or what kind of life you lead, you remain irrevocably linked with the rest of creation.” Charles Cook

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