Decorah's West Side Early Childhood Center has earned national certification as a Nature Explore Classroom from Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation.

West Side Early Childhood Center joins a growing network of organizations and institutions that have created effective nature-based outdoor learning environments for children that allows for idea-sharing, peer support and continuous development.

"Numerous organizations and volunteers have contributed to the success of the West Side Early Childhood's natural playground," said Decorah Elementary Principal Rick Varney. "Decorah Community Schools in partnership with the Luther College Center for Sustainable Communities and Willowglen Nursery have deep investments in the project, along with support from Rockwell Collins, the Winneshiek County Community Foundation, Winneshiek County Master Gardeners, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, the McElroy Foundation, the local Boy Scout troop and countless community volunteers and families who have dedicated many hours to the project."

The Westside Natural Playground is a living playground, with many opportunities to volunteer and add a creative touch. To volunteer on this project, contact Varney at: or 563-382-4451. More information on West Side Early Childhood Center can be found at

Nature Explore

Nature Explore Classrooms program was developed in response to the growing disconnect between children and nature.

Certified Nature Explore Classrooms help fill the void by integrating research-based outdoor learning opportunities into children's daily lives, according to Susie Wirth, Nature Explore outreach director.

"West Side Early Childhood Center has shown tremendous leadership in growing the next generation of environmental stewards," Wirth said. "Their commitment to providing research-based and nature-rich learning offers a wonderful example to educators throughout the country."

The classrooms, which are being developed across the country, offer interactive elements such as musical instruments made of natural materials, garden or pathway areas and natural materials for building and creating art.

Children who learn and grow in Certified Nature Explore Classrooms enhance concentration, develop creativity and problem solving, relieve stress and improve skills in many areas of development, Wirth said.

Outdoor classrooms that are designed according to standards and principles described in Dimensions Educational Research Foundation's "Learning With Nature Idea Book" are eligible to become certified Nature Explore Classrooms. A new guidebook, "At Home With Nature: Creating Nature Explore Playscapes for Families," helps parents bring the same research-based approach to learning in nature to their own children at home.