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Exploration Station opens at Catholic preschool


Enzo, 4, caught a catfish.

“I cook it with salt and pepper and feed it to my friends,” he explained.

His friend, Francesca, will help him eat the fish. But first she needs to build a teepee and hunt for bears.

She hasn’t spotted any yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

Both preschoolers attend St. Francis of Assisi Preschool in Raleigh. And they’re not at a lake or in the mountains but playing on their new playground off Leesville Road.

The school debuted a new playground—known as the Exploration Station—earlier this year. It’s a combination of research, ingenuity and a natural setting.

Nearby road construction prompted the preschool to move its traditional playground to another side of the building. And when construction was complete, there was unused land that director Cathy Ashton saw as an opportunity.

Mrs. Ashton said she’s always researching and asking herself what’s new in early childhood education and how can she best serve children to become successful learners.

The answers she’s found, she said, show a decline in social skills and a rise in sensory issues among young children. When she read an article by Valerie Strauss titled, “The Decline of Play in Preschoolers,” Mrs. Ashton took note.

In the article, the writer quoted an occupational therapist, who said, “Research continues to point out that young children learn best through meaningful play experiences ... this is best done outside where the senses are fully ignited and young bodies challenged.”

Mrs. Ashton set to work creating a proposal for Exploration Station. She quickly found support. She employed a small financial gift from a parish family and discarded materials such as old speed bumps and unused bins. And, thanks to volunteer work from parents and parishioners, the dream was realized without a single budget-line item.

The result is a simple yet ingenious area for children to explore, create and interact. And it’s happening, Mrs. Ashton said, largely without rules.  

“The only rule, really, is that you need to be responsible for what your body is doing … that you don’t hurt somebody. Other than that, you can play,” she said.

This openness created an environment of imagination. And the students’ impact even changed the original design.

“The original play spaces that we created, they just moved them. We built a ‘campfire ring’ of rocks, but they wanted a floor in the teepee, so they put the rocks in the teepee, and the logs were there, but they wanted them elsewhere to be balance beams,” she said. “There were so many things we didn’t anticipate! We love to watch how their minds work and what things they come up.”

St. Francis teacher Amy Kimble agrees. “I think this isn’t your typical playground. It’s just something different and new, and it spurs their creativity,” she said. “A week ago, after some Irish Dancers came to the school, they rushed to the stage to dance. Today, they are fishing.”

Mrs. Ashton added that with today’s incredible opportunities for organized children’s activities, this kind of free outdoor play simply doesn’t happen as often as it used to. But she encourages parents to make time for it.

“The more time your kids can get outside and explore their natural world, it really is so beneficial to them,” she said.

- Mandy Howard