Young students at UCF’s Creative School for Children do more outside than just run and play and sometimes get a little dirty – They learn!

As a result, the Creative School was recently named a certified Nature Explore Classroom by the national Nature Explore program, an initiative that recognizes schools and other organizations that make a commitment to use the natural world as an integral part of learning. Nature Explore Classrooms were developed by a team of educators, landscape architects and researchers in response to the documented growing disconnect between children and nature.

The school, on Gemini Boulevard just west of the UCF water tower, offers not just inside classroom programs but now also presents a variety of outside interactive elements geared to create an environment of discovery, exploration and development.

Designated centers on the campus provide hands-on activities such as nature art, music and movement, climbing, butterfly garden, vegetable garden – and even dirt-digging and “messy materials” areas.

“We set out with a year-long initiative to transform our playground to a nature-based classroom,” said Amy Hesse, director of the school.

And how do children learn in this environment?

“Through observation, interaction, exploration, risk-taking, decision making, project-based learning – and play,” she said.

The transition included training the staff about using nature in teaching, working with the UCF Arboretum for landscaping and sustainability of the new gardens, enlisting volunteers to help install new equipment and materials, and arranging with Wellness & Health Promotions Services to offer gardening lessons and share harvests with families and UCF students.

At the end of the year of redevelopment, the school hosted two workshops presented for the southeast region members of Nature Explore, which is a collaboration of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation.

The school has about 150 children enrolled up through age 5 in seven classrooms, with additional programs during summer months.

“We integrate nature-based learning in our curriculum both indoors and outdoors and host family events in the outdoor classroom such as “Art in the Garden” and “International Dinner,” Hesse said.

This new certification networks the Creative School with more than 320 like-minded spaces nationwide.

“University of Central Florida Creative School for Children provides a model to other universities across the country,” said Heather Fox, director of communications and outreach for the Nature Explore program. “These spaces inspire hands-on activity, creativity, play and plenty of time exploring the natural world.”

In addition to offering educational experiences for the children, the school provides an opportunity for university students to gain experience and training in working with young children, and for faculty and graduate students to do educational research.