Children’s Learning Gardens in Cleveland

by Elsa Johnson

Are we officially in winter yet? The Acanthus mollis in my garden has yet to wilt, telling me we have not yet had a freeze hard enough to kill back it or its cousin Acanthus spinosa.

At any rate, back a month or so ago when it was officially and gloriously fall – Gardenopolis co-editors Tom Gibson and I joined a bus tour given by the Cleveland Association of Young Children. The tour would take us to four locations where we would be looking at both indoor and outdoor learning environments for young children. Firm believers in exposing children to nature at a very young age, we are interested in children’s outdoor learning environments. We wanted to see what is out there.

The tour started at the Music School Settlement, that impressive powerhouse educational resource located in University Circle, that lies cheek to jowl with Case Western Reserve University. The Music School Settlement, founded in 1912, is one of the oldest community music schools in the country, providing music education and arts-related programs to students of all ages regardless of their ability to pay. We were touring specifically the Center for Early Childhood’s classrooms and its outdoor learning environments : an Outdoor Classroom, and a Learning Garden.

When the children visit the outdoor classroom they are split into groups that rotate around 3 to 7 areas, participating in facilitator-led experiments at each of the areas. The areas include a water pump; stepping stones or tree stumps, a dirt pile, a sand pile, a paved track, a grassy hill, and planters. Nothing is very elaborate. The number of areas visited and experiments conducted depend on the interest and engagement of the students. An example of a planned activity is the water faucet where the children operate the pump to fill various size containers with water, count the number and sizes of various containers and cooperate to empty smaller containers into larger containers.

1112160913bStudents are also allowed time to freely explore the environment. There is an art ledge which the children may paint with colored water.


There is nothing in this outdoor classroom that a group of enthusiastic volunteers could not build, with the exception of the circular paved pathway that connects all the learning stations.


The outdoor Learning Garden, located on the footprint of a Victory Garden has numerous small beds for learning about and growing both annuals and perennial plants like Jerusalem artichoke. There is an herb spiral. There is a composter.

Our next stop was the Nature Center at Cleveland Metroparks Rocky River Reservation – South. Here, of course, the entire outdoors is a classroom and an adventure, so there is less constructed outdoors specifically for early childhood education. There are indoor classrooms, and extensive nature learning programing. What is new – just installed – is a new food forest located at the front of the building in its stunning location below a high escarpment, right alongside the Rocky river.



 Our next stop was Parma Preschool. The outdoor space here seemed to combine some aspects of a playground (the moving bridge) and many of the aspects we saw at the Music School Settlement (water play/exploration area, planting beds, a place to paint), all of it condensed into a relatively small space. There was a certain appeal to that density. 

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Our last stop was the campus and school of the Urban Community School. Unfortunately, by the time we got there my battery had expired, so I have no pictures to share with you. I can only tell you that this inner city, near west side school run by Catholic nuns is a very nice place indeed. Their learning garden, wherein one finds many of the elements found at the Music School Settlement, is by far the most glamorous, and obviously professionally designed and executed.  There is a willow withe tunnel to surpass all other withe tunnels, an amphitheater, a hoop house (like a greenhouse but enclosed by plastic), and raised beds. It is beautiful. There is also a tall fence all the way around it and you need a key to get in.        


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