Vallejo architect sees classrooms in forest clearings

Paul Robert’s classroom has no walls. And that’s a good thing, because the 53-year-old Vallejo man doesn’t just want kids to learn — he wants to give them freedom.


IMG_0012 “We’re trying to allow the child’s voice to be really central to their education,” Roberts said of his push to create a “nature preschool” in Vallejo.


 The idea behind the school is simple: Expose children regularly to the outdoors, and they’ll not only have better health outcomes, but will have more success in their academic and social-emotional development. “You can do math and science and art from planting,” the Napa native said.


As an architect on Mare Island, Roberts’ life has been designing spaces for children. His passion, however, has been outdoor education, stoked in part by the experiences of his oldest son. Now 20, Roberts’ son had been asked to leave a few schools due to behavioral issues stemming from Asperberger’s syndrome. But once he was outside with the Boy Scouts, the behavioral problems subsided, Roberts said.


You can do math and science and art from planting

Intrigued, Roberts’ research eventually would lead him to Claire Warden, a Scottish author and educational consultant who promotes outdoor education and nature preschools.The two met a few years ago at a conference. Warden, 50, has since mentored Roberts, allowing him to become the United States’ first Authorized Claire Warden Trainer. 



The teachers who incorporate outdoor education still follow the same standards as those who teach indoors, Warden said. “It’s just a different setting and a different methodology,” Warden said, noting that those in charge were less teachers and more facilitators. Warden visited Vallejo last week during Roberts’ first session as trainer, during which he exposed several preschool teachers to the theories and practices of outdoor education.


“Fire for a child — it’s magical,” Roberts said as he showed the teachers how to make flames using kindling and a flint at McIntyre Ranch. The making of the fire can then lead to other lessons of cooking or storytelling, Roberts said. “I hope to bring the outdoors indoors,” said Rowena Velasco, a trainee from Daly City who works at a Head Start program in San Francisco.


Fellow Head Start teacher Evelyn Bandelaria said she wanted to incorporate Roberts and Wardens’ teachings, but noted the difficulty of doing so in a restrictive urban environment like San Francisco. “The sad thing is we don’t have this kind of environment in San Francisco. It’s better here in Vallejo,” Bandelaria said as she roasted a marshmallow in the fire she just made. Indeed, teachers from around the Bay Area can expect more training sessions in Vallejo, especially with the completion of Robert’s nature preschool, The Child’s Play Institute. 


IMG_0011Roberts is currently in talks with local agencies to establish the preschool, with expectations that it is up and running by late fall. The institute will also be a center for training, while the preschool portion must adhere to the same legal requirements as other indoor preschools, Roberts added. The popularity of outdoor education is picking up, Warden said, noting that her job was to provide the support and expertise for those who want it. “You find people coming toward you,” Warden said, adding that parents sometimes drive the movement. Locally, the Vallejo City Unified School District is pursuing a similar idea at Loma Vista Elementary School, which this school year became the Loma Vista Environmental Science Academy to take advantage of the nearby farm.


Warden will return to the Bay Area in late May to help Roberts put together an international conference at the University of California, Berkeley, with outings to Vallejo.


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Contact Lanz Christian Bañes at (707) 553-6833 or Follow him on Twitter @LanzTimesH.



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