St. Vincent ELC formally opens outdoor classroom

By Tim Lilley

After St. Vincent Early Learning Center Board President Josh Hodge welcomed scores of visitors to St. Vincent Early Learning Center on July 12, Executive Director Kim Mulfinger spoke about the center’s new outdoor classroom before its formal blessing, dedication and ribbon-cutting.

“It has become so much more than I envisioned,” Mulfinger said, explaining that the space creates an opportunity for the center to “extend learning beyond indoor classrooms.” She added that St. Vincent ELC incorporates the Reggio Emelia philosophy, which focuses on preschool and primary-school-aged youngsters.

St. Vincent Early Learning Center Executive Director Kim Mulfinger, with scissors, cuts the ribbon to officially open the facility’s new outdoor classroom during a July 12 ceremony. Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke holds the ribbon with help from some of the youngsters who attend the center and were enjoying the outdoor classroom on a sunny summer morning. The Message photos by Tim Lilley.

Online research reveals that classrooms inspired by the Reggio Emelia philosophy offer a nontraditional learning environment. The new outdoor classroom certainly achieves that. It includes 10 different areas for children to explore and learn — including a water area, dirt-digging area, building area and several others.

“We hope that this classroom serves as the start of a movement in our community to provide more opportunities for children to encounter and explore nature,” Mulfinger said.

The Early Learning Center partnered with Nature Explore to design the classroom, and Mulfinger said that St. Vincent is hoping to have the classroom certified by Nature Explore within the next year. “The classroom will become the first certified classroom of its type in our region,” she explained.

Nature Explore is part of the Nebraska-based Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. Its website describes its mission as “to transform children’s lives through meaningful daily connections with nature.”

Mulfinger explained that the Early Learning Center identified two playground areas that could be combined and transformed into an outdoor classroom, then partnered with Nature Explore to complete the design. Fund-raising and construction stages followed, all of this led to the July 12 blessing and dedication.

Mulfinger thanked the Women’s Fund of Vanderburgh County, the Vectren Foundation, Gary and Kim Alles, the Cecil A. and Mabel Lene Hamman Foundation and many other supporters who helped fund the outdoor classroom.

After her brief remarks, visitors, including Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke, joined Mulfinger and ambassadors from the Southwestern Indiana Chamber of Commerce in the classroom — already in use — for the ceremonial ribbon cutting. Daughter of Charity Sister Joanna Vasa, the Early Learning Center’s director of mission integration, then led prayer and blessed the space.

St. Vincent Early Learning Center Executive Director Kim Mulfinger, left, visits with Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke as they walk out to the new outdoor classroom for the blessing and ribbon cutting.

This drawing shows the design and features of the new outdoor classroom.