Photos courtesy of Tracy Estes.
Little Imaginations Preschool
In May, children lined up for the ribbon cutting and formal dedication of their new outdoor classroom.
Long before she ever called Bluff Park United Methodist her professional home, Tracy Estes longed to teach in an early education setting where the outdoors were used for more than just recess.
Fast forward several years, and Estes, now director at Bluff Park United Methodist’s Little Imaginations Preschool, got her wish. The space was completed in May after the church spent several years saving the proceeds from its biannual Bargains on the Bluff consignment sale.
“The outdoor classroom will allow us to add a hands-on element to our nature lessons,” said Estes, who has nurtured the idea in its various iterations since she first arrived at the church in 2008. “In addition to daily lessons about weather, our teachers offer lessons about insects, animals and plants that will come to life in new ways when we can take the children outside to experience it for themselves.”
Before the outdoor classroom opened, the area was treated as courtyard space and was used seasonally for events like Easter egg hunts in spring and a pumpkin patch in the fall. The area was under consideration to become a columbarium until the sloping grade ruled out that possibility. Estes said that’s when the outdoor classroom idea gained traction.
Over the next several years, Estes remained a patient advocate for the project as she worked to gain congregational support, identify funding sources and learn about the legal and safety requirements involved with a project of this scale. Early in that process, Estes found that one of the parents of children enrolled in her program had the willpower and the chops to make Estes’ vision a reality — Jennafer Collins, a landscape architect with Greenspace LLC.
“When we first started talking seriously about this project, Jennafer was a parent in our program,” said Estes, adding that Collins’ commitment to the project has spanned its multiyear development. “She developed several sets of plans over the years, presented the plans to the preschool board and the church trustees, coordinated the bidding process, oversaw construction — frequently checking in with the contractor — and so much more. There is no way this project would have ever come to fruition without her.”
For Estes, it was well worth the wait.
“The children will see the life cycle of plants by growing and cultivating them in the planter boxes, and will see plants and trees produce fruit and feed our animal friends,” she said. “Being able to read nature books in the ‘amphitheater’ area and paint on the clear paint easels will provide yet another hands-on element to their lessons that we could not offer previously.”
The space, centrally located on the church grounds, is large and visible from all points of the church. Installation details were selected with this in mind, and Estes is hopeful that the classroom will take on a multipurpose life of its own.
“We have been thankful for all of the positive feedback we have received since construction began,” she said. “We truly appreciate the support the church has offered, and we hope that the changes we have made will allow the whole church family to enjoy the space.”