Patagonia has offered corporate-sponsored on-site child care since 1983. The Great Pacific Child Development Center, GPCDC for short, is where infants and children spend their days crawling, running, climbing and exploring, mostly outdoors, while their parents work. We wanted to tell the story of GPCDC, so last year we published Family Business by Malinda Chouinard and Jennifer Ridgeway. The book illustrates what high-quality child care looks like and explains why providing on-site child care to working families is at the heart of responsible business today. The following is an excerpt from chapter thirteen of Family Business, “Raising the Next Generation.”
Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.
How can we inspire children to be stewards of the planet?
We want children to love nature so that they protect it in the future. To do that, children must have time to play outside, communing with plants and relating to the heroic march of ants. Being in nature is just plain good for children and adults. In 2015, a Stanford University study determined that walking outdoors in a park for one hour made the test subjects happier than walking for an hour in a city. A recent study done in Amsterdam found that even images of natural settings can help students relax and improve their abilities in school. One of the scientists involved mused, “Just imagine the effect of real trees.” Not only do children benefit from nature, but nature benefits from children.
Kids thrive outdoors.
We don’t need research to tell us that spending time outdoors is good for us. However, we love that research now supports what we’ve known for a long time. There is growing evidence that spending time in natural environments positively affects children. When children spend time in nature, they are happier, calmer, and more focused.
Nature is the ultimate sensory experience.
Children at GPCDC spend more than half their time outdoors in play spaces that are far from wild but which offer trees, rocks, dirt, and water—we simulate nature as best we can. There are places to climb and ever-changing, thought-provoking areas to explore. No indoor environment, toy, or technology rivals the unpredictability of nature. When children need to run, jump, and climb, the best challenge is a landscape of grasses, rocks, and fallen trees. For quiet moments, turning over a rock reveals a diverse, alive ecosystem. We currently can’t provide untamed nature at GPCDC, but we wholeheartedly believe that wild landscapes are unsurpassed at engaging children.
Playing outside prepares children for life.
In Scandinavian countries, researchers found that children who play in natural landscapes tested better in motor development compared to those who play on flat playgrounds. School-age children who are asked to focus for longer periods of time need outdoor play to support classroom learning. According to the American Institutes for Research, “Studies in California and across the United States showed that schools that used outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education saw significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math.”
Outdoor Classroom Project
To deepen our understanding of how to support children’s relationship to the outdoors, our staff are trained and certified by the Outdoor Classroom Project. You can find GPCDC on the Outdoor Classroom Project website as a model for this kind of learning.
Those who take inspiration from this program follow these tenets:
- Most activities that can be done indoors can be done outdoors. Some activities occur best outdoors; some can only occur outdoors.
- Children spend substantial periods of time outside, and it is easy and safe for them to get there; they are free to move easily between the indoors and outdoors.
- There is a full range of activities for children, including many activities that are traditionally thought of as indoor activities.
- The outdoor space offers a balance of areas for active and less-active play.
- While outside, children frequently have the opportunity to initiate their own learning experiences and activities, with appropriate materials for them to use as they wish.
- The outdoor curriculum evolves from and changes with children’s changing needs and interests.
- Children experience nature in as many ways as possible.
Children who garden learn about the cycles of life.
Gardens connect children to the natural world. Our children plant, water, weed, harvest, and eat fresh fruits and vegetables all year long. They plunge their fingers into fresh soil, watch flowers transform into fruit, gingerly pluck berries and savor the sweet juices. They become emotionally attached to the plants, cheer on new growth, and wonder what’s gone wrong when a plant doesn’t thrive. Their day-to-day relationship with the garden fosters empathy toward the natural world, which blossoms into a desire to protect life.
Water conservation as a way of life.
Given that we reside in sunny-yet-drought-prone Southern California, we take water conservation seriously—and ask children to take it seriously as well. All ages reuse leftover water from snack and lunchtime to water the gardens. We discuss with older children how to save water in the outdoor areas. In order to save water, we’ve implemented these policies on our play yards. The “dog licks” that provide water for sand play are turned off between 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Our water pump is a special activity that’s used only once a month. In our messy kitchen area, a clear jug with a spigot is filled only once a day. As children use water, they can see the level dropping and monitor their consumption and conservation. And when it rains, GPCDC kids splash in the mud, dance, cheer, and chant, “The plants are drinking and happy!”
Connection with animals builds empathy.
In the same way gardening builds empathy with plants, positive interaction with animals creates animal lovers. Watching animals eat, play, and sleep, children see that animal lives are filled with similar routines and concerns as human lives. The more experience children have with animals, the happier children feel and the more likely they are to grow up as advocates for animals’ habitats.
Our guinea pig, Butterscotch, calls GPCDC home. Children exercise care when handling him and practice observation skills to determine when and how much to feed him. Teachers build children’s empathy by initiating open-ended discussions about Butterscotch’s experiences. On long weekends, a lucky GPCDC family takes him home. Children delight in talking with their classmates about what Butterscotch did over the weekend.
Insects are animals too.
Teachers coach children to interact gently with all insects, instilling respect for the life of every creature. We observe the daily habits of bees, ants, and other bugs; and children share news of their discoveries of spiderwebs, anthills, and wasp nests. Children learn about beneficial insects and worms firsthand by helping to release them into their gardens. Our campus is a certified monarch butterfly habitat, so in every garden we plant milkweed, a monarch caterpillar’s only food. We use our environment to bolster dwindling populations of butterflies and give children the opportunity to observe all stages of the monarch’s life cycle.
Children can teach parents environmental practices.
We not only build relationships with nature by giving children lots of time and experiences outdoors, but we also incorporate recycling, composting, and water reuse. Children grow up doing these things as second nature. They bring these practices home and often instigate change in their households. Every age group composts discarded food. Children regularly carry food scraps to worm bins and compost piles and can watch their food scraps turn to soil. The soil is then used in the gardens, which children eat from and then compost any leftover scraps. GPCDC children are often more familiar with zero-waste processes and practices than many adults.
Learning where our food comes from.
Caring for gardens, picking fruits and vegetables, and churning butter—all these tasks help children understand where their food comes from. As one child said, “We know our food is real because we pull it right out of the ground.” We encourage parents to avoid bringing cake to the center to celebrate their child’s birthday and opt instead for activities—such as pressing cider or making carrot juice— that encourage children to eat healthy foods and make celebrations about social experiences rather than sugary treats. When children take apples and place them in a cider press, they can see, touch, smell, and taste the process of whole apples being transformed into cider.
Parents and kids volunteer together.
We celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. by encouraging employees to spend MLK Day volunteering with nonprofit groups. Patagonia pays employees for their time. In past years, employees helped clear an area in the Sierras overtaken by invasive plants. Some of our school-age children worked alongside their parents planting native trees. We recently helped out the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy in a similar way by removing non-native plant species and planting native ones.
The most effective field trips are to places where children can return on a regular basis. For example, our Kids’ Club children bike to Foster Park. Returning week after week, they become intimate with the land. They notice changes, acorns falling and flowers blooming. Their relationship to the place is multilayered, rooted in many experiences through time.
Beach cleanup: A dirty job, and kids can do it.
Do we want our kids to play on trash-littered beaches? Sometimes kids are the most effective activists. Future stewards of the Earth must hone their skills, so our older children walk to the local surf break and collect trash.
Kids are part of the solution.
Cleaning beaches, smashing cans, composting food scraps—these activities are not hard work for children. They’re fun. Kids love to contribute in meaningful ways, so we give them opportunities to pitch in daily. A love for nature, and the disposition to go the extra mile to protect it, is built over time and reinforced by small, consistent, and meaningful moments.
Our children remind us of our responsibilities to the planet.
Patagonia has always been committed to finding environmental solutions. Having on-site child care lets us watch children play from the windows of our offices and fuels our urgency to improve our business processes. When our children shout with delight when harvesting a hidden carrot or toss a pile of autumn leaves into the air, they remind us that nature is wondrous and worth protecting for future generations—our children’s children and beyond.