When the new Haymarket-Gainesville Community Library opened in late 2015, the Gainesville Neighborhood Library was no longer needed, so the Prince William County Public Library System transferred the building to the Department of Parks and Recreation. Getting a new building in its inventory offered the Parks and Recreation Department an opportunity to provide new programming for the community that offered nature-based, preschool education, said Brent Heavner, Communications Services Division Chief for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
The old library is now the redesigned Grō Natural Education Space. Grō, which is housed in the building that sits within the 230-acre James S. Long Regional Park just outside of Haymarket, offers indoor and outdoor learning by using the park and its nearly five miles of trails. "The real exciting thing about this facility is the nature-based preschool where students can take advantage of the facility and the acreage surrounding to get outside and really experience nature and have a lot of fun," Heavner said.
Learning in the Grō program is an additive experience for children. When they go outdoors on hikes, the children are encouraged to focus on listening to birds or hunting acorns. Finding insects can be a "teachable moment," said Heidi Hanson, a recreation specialist with Parks and Recreation. "They seem to be entertained just going on hikes and seeing what's happening in the trees, on the ground, taking a look at the plants that are flowering."
"We ask them to bring their boots and a change of clothes when they come for a day of activities at Grō. We're not afraid of getting dirty and the kids love it," Heavner said.
Children who attend the Grō program can benefit in several ways unique to nature-based learning. For example, learning about the letter "A" might involve discussing ants and looking at them with magnifying glasses. Children might learn about birds when the letter "B" comes up. Learning about the letter "S" could lead to a discussion about squirrels and their habits. Daily jaunts into the woods and fields at Long Park to touch, smell and see nature complement the indoor learning Hanson said. "We're going to be outside a lot. We're going to be integrating different science concepts about observing, exploring, and we're really going to use the natural resources of the park."
The redesigned space recently received an American Inhouse Design Award for 2017 for its forest-themed, kid-friendly murals on the inside and outside walls depicting the flora and fauna of the region.
Counting, coloring, game playing, singing and story reading go on inside the building where one wall mural has a river running through it and a duck and her ducklings swimming in a pond where frogs sit on lily pads. Deer peer out from the forest alongside a trail through the woods. Other wall murals include birds flying in blue skies with puffy clouds; a friendly-looking wolf peeks out from behind a large tree with butterflies in its canopy; flowers grow on rolling hillsides; and squirrels and rabbits play in green fields where children camp and fly kites.
Parks and Recreation Department Graphic Designer Lori Richards brought the ideas and design elements together to create the Grō Space where she thought to include depictions of critters that live below the surface in the forests and fields, as well as those that live above ground. "There's a cut out from the hill where I wanted to show scenes from under the earth that kids never see. They see a flower sticking out of the ground, and its roots growing under the ground. I put in little worms, little crickets and snails, little gophers that dig tunnels. There are ants tunneling."
The whole idea, Richards said, was to make children happy in the space. "I just wanted it all to be super friendly."
Laura Flanagan's son, Virgil, attends preschool classes at the Grō space and she said likes the building's new, educational design. "I love how they redid it. I love that they can count the bugs on the murals. It's really nice and open."
Ann Brown's three-year-old daughter, Filomena, attended the program and gained from the experience, Brown said. "I love that they're outside everyday even when it's raining. For us, it was her first experience in any kind of group-structured class of any type. She gets to become herself here and hang out outside and learn all kinds of stuff."
Visit the Parks and Recreation Department's Grō webpage for more information about the program.