Playful Learning


Outdoor classroom added to New Cassel park

Last week, the Town of North Hempstead joined with the Parks and Recreation Department and members of the now-defunct Early Years Institute (EYI) to cut the ribbon on a new outdoor classroom at Martin Bunky Reid Park in New Cassel.

The space is the culmination of nine years of research, planning and fundraising, spearheaded by the EYI. Though the nonprofit focused on school readiness has since closed its doors, the agency’s executive director Dana Friedman remained committed to her goal of making the outdoor classroom a reality.

Children and teachers from Westbury Head Start join community members and Dana Friedman (at left), Supervisor Judi Bosworth (second from right) and Councilwoman Viviana Russel (right) at a ribbon cutting for the new outdoor classroom.

“This is a wonderful space for children to use all their senses and for parents to understand children need free play,” said Friedman, a Westbury High School Class of 1969 alum who now serves as deputy commissioner for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. “It gives kids a chance to run around and because they’re cooperative areas, kids tend to talk more. And there are other benefits, like art and science and creativity and problem solving.”

During the planning stages, the EYI held two focus groups with families about the outdoor classroom, where Westbury parents and children voiced their opinions on what they wanted the theme to be. Both groups wanted to celebrate the diversity of the area.

“I thought music, which is the international language, would be a good way to celebrate the diversity,” said Friedman.

Children explore their musical side with cymbals at the outdoor classroom.

That theme manifests itself in several music-oriented items at the outdoor classroom, including a movement and music area with cymbals, amadinda, Tung-drums and rainbow chimes, as well as a stage and performance area.

Colorful artwork by artist Emmett Wigglesworth greets children as they enter the space, which is located by the park’s playground. Aimed to promote learning and play, the outdoor classroom also features tables for art projects, two tile art tables, two nature sorting tables and a treehouse.

For Westbury Head Start Director Novella Dortch-Smith, the addition of an outdoor classroom just down the street from her school will be a huge benefit to her young students, especially since they come to the park at least once a week.

“Children learn in different learning styles, this adapts to different learning styles,” she said. “For some of the kids who have a hard time sitting still, this is the best way for them to learn. My expectation for the kids of Westbury and everywhere is that all children can learn, depending on how you adapt to learning.”

Head Start students build with blocks

Dortch-Smith and other educators who bring their students to the outdoor classroom have the added benefit of being able to request additional teaching tools, such as dancing scarves, garden tools and other learning instruments.

The Outdoor Classroom was funded in part by the Town of North Hempstead and generous grants from the EYI, the Hagedorn Foundation, Angela and Scott Jagger Foundation, Sandy River Charitable Foundation, Frances Dewing Foundation, William E. and Maude S. Pritchard Charitable Trust, Rauch Foundation, Westbury Class of 1969, NV5, designer, and artist Emmet Wigglesworth.

“The Outdoor Classroom can help reconnect children with nature and promote dynamic nature-based play and learning,” said Councilmember Viviana Russell. “It’s designed to stimulate creativity, improve language and science skills and contribute to a child’s healthy development. We are so grateful to our wonderful partners on this project who helped make it a reality.”

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Betsy Abraham is the former senior managing editor at Anton Media Group and editor of The Westbury Times and Massapequa Observer. She also wrote for Long Island Weekly.

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