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  • Paula Jordan

Nature Garden Playschool at the Growing Center: Wonder, Joy, and Changes

A child plays in the greenery at the Growing Center.

In early November we spent time at the Growing Center harvesting all the still-producing tomatoes and herbs that wouldn’t survive the frost that was on the way. We raked leaves, cleaned the raised bed, coiled up the hoses, and put them out of the way for the winter. The harvested tomatoes were delivered to one of the participating preschools in our Nature Garden Playschool program, along with fresh parsley, and a potted lemongrass plant that will overwinter in their classroom. On the classroom wall are photos of the children in front of the their school smiling, yellow vests on, getting ready to walk through Union Square to get to the garden, and another one of children sitting in a circle with me, scissors in hand cutting seed heads off a plant. Norma Melendez, lead preschool teacher at Head Start, explained that she is sharing observations and photos from her classroom’s visits to the garden with the parents. She tells them how the scissor and tool use activities help motor skills and that play in the garden is strengthening social skills and developing resilience. She sees the children carrying big baskets and heavy objects and knows that these activities support the children’s physical development and increases self esteem in their abilities.

A child cuts a plant stalk in the garden.

“We had a grand time at the Growing Center this past Tuesday. I took the All Day classroom of 18 children. Some had been there during the summer and became tour guides for the children who had never visited. It was so fun to watch as the kids explored, climbed the tree, and rocks and talked about forts and herbs and bees & butterflies. Even the bunny came to visit!!!! The little bit of rain did not decrease our good time. Thank you!”

-–Director, Roberta McCluskey As we are preparing the garden for winter, we are also continuing to engage with these visiting preschools to support their visits to the Center as it gets colder, and snowier. There are many benefits to child-led outdoor play. Studies show that kids who play outdoors have improved concentration and that this form of play enhances brain development, and positively affects their health and wellbeing.

A child scatters leaves at the Growing Center.

Kids who play outside in all weather also develop resilience, experience important sensory experiences, gain knowledge about seasonal changes, and also through physical experiences, strengthen their bodies and develop self regulation. These kids are often more positive, creative, and adaptable. As one outdoor teacher observed, challenging weather creates real and perceived risks, and real opportunities for growth. Outdoor play experiences also engage children in learning more about their environment through learning that is connected to the real world; concepts like how water moves, plant, butterfly, bird, insect, and animal lifecycles. They see first-hand how flowers turn into seeds, experience weather and seasonal changes. The wood-chipped area with the sandpile has remained a favorite play spot. Sand, sticks, pieces of wood, empty plastic plant pots, baskets, trowels, and various containers are available to play with.

A sandpile at the Growing Center decorated by kids with sticks and plant containers.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in. -–Rachel Carson In addition to loose part play, nature play invitations are left out for the 3-5 year olds who will be visiting; baskets filled with stones, leaves, bark and pinecones, a long wooden board propped on two logs to make something to walk and climb on, several logs, pieces of wood, rope, and various containers. We are in conversation with Lauren Evans from local company, Monarch Studios, about purchasing an outdoor mud kitchen for the Growing Center. In part, the Somerville Health Foundation grant will help us do this. Children now call the brick pathway that winds up to the top of the Center the “Plunging Walkway.” This speaks to what David Sobel, environmental educator and author calls, “design principles in action that make learning real.” This is the the desire to rename, create special spaces, and adventure within an outdoor play area or outdoor experience.

Two children explore in the snow at the Growing Center.

This fall I met with teachers about creating a gear closet to support outdoor play in all weather. We have connected with the Somerville Family Closet and parent advocates at the preschools who are visiting, to ensure that teachers and children have what they need to walk to the center, play, and be comfortably warm. This month we also did a teacher training on the role of teachers and caregivers in outdoor child-led nature play and inexpensive additions/invitations that can be added to enhance children’s play experiences in urban nature play. We are hoping to do more of these trainings in 2020 as part of our grant work. Later in January, we are planning a warm oatmeal morning with herbal tea day and as the days grow shorter and colder instead of saying it’s too cold or wet to play outside we are saying; It’s a dressing up warm day today!


Paula Jordan is a nature educator and the coordinator of the Nature Garden Playschool at the Growing Center. We are very grateful to the Somerville Health Foundation for the grant to do this important community work, to Jadilma Santos, NGP assistant and to the teachers from our visiting schools who make it a priority to get kids outdoors to play in all weather and have been good stewards to the newly renovated GC space. If you are interested in supporting the GC’s efforts to increase access to nature play in Somerville, please be in touch at We are also looking for volunteers who would like to help shovel during the winter continuing to make the GC accessible to our visiting schools during the winter months. Please email us if you’d like to help at

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