Foundation supports outdoor learning through Nurturing Nature Explorers project

Funding provided through involvement with Northeast Iowa Funders Network

The National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences recently recognized Northeast Iowa for outstanding work in environmental education. The Nurturing Nature Explorers project, with support from the Northeast Iowa Funders Network (NEIFN), received first place nationally for environmental education.

“NEIFN is proud to celebrate this award for work that enhances quality of life in our region, and pleased that we were able to provide grants to the project in 2018 and 2019,” says MJ Smith, director of affiliate foundations at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque is a co-convener of the Northeast Iowa Funders Network, a partnership of funders including the Allamakee County Community Foundation and the Clayton County Foundation for the Future. In 2019, the Clayton County Foundation provided an additional award to the Nature Explorers project from its own grantmaking fund. 

The Foundation continues working to improve access to quality child care throughout the region, and opportunities for outdoor learning experiences have become increasingly important since the pandemic began. Research shows that regular time in nature facilitates a child’s social development and well-being; improves physical fitness; inspires creative and collaborative play; reduces stress, violence and bullying; and creates feelings of empathy for plants and animals. Outdoor classrooms provide all these benefits and more through features like gardens and pathways, and musical instruments, art supplies and building supplies made of natural materials.

Since Nurturing Nature Explorers launched in 2017, many partners have joined the effort. A total of 100 child care providers and county conservation naturalists have completed training on enhancing children’s engagement with nature. Training was offered through Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in collaboration with Child Care Resources and Referral. Outdoor classrooms have been certified at Northeast Iowa Community College Child Development Center, and for public use at Clayton County Conservation – Osborne Center near Elkader and Fayette County Conservation Outdoor Playscape at Elgin. The Driftless Area Wetland Centre in Marquette is currently in the outdoor classroom certification process.

“The outdoor classroom gives kids an opportunity to explore and engage independently. The music station, sandbox, and logs for climbing and balancing are especially popular,” said Jenna Pollock, director of Clayton County Conservation, which operates Osborne Center and the outdoor classroom there. “The outdoor classroom is a welcome mat to Osborne that springboards exploration around the rest of the park’s amenities.”

More about NEIFN

Since 2009, local representatives from Allamakee, Chickasaw, Clayton, Howard and Winneshiek counties have met quarterly to build a regional network of funders addressing shared issues and leveraging funding to benefit all participating counties. The network strives to drive sustainable change throughout Northeast Iowa grow healthy communities by:

• Encouraging partnerships and building a model for counties to work together and funders to collaborate in creating strategic impact.

• Raising and pooling project funds and making grants that leverage state, federal and private dollars, creating a larger impact across our region.