Hidalgo County Head Start to invest $5.5M in outdoor learning facilities

(Courtesy: Hidalgo County Head Start Director Teresa Flores)

Hidalgo County Head Start is taking a holistic approach to education, perhaps drawing inspiration from a centuries-old philosophy that says children learn best when they’re at play.

And as part of that idea, the program is constructing outdoor learning environments for children ages 3 to 5 at each of its 36 locations throughout the county and a Discovery Park — complete with a shuttle service — next to its headquarters in McAllen.

“There’s all kinds of studies that talk about nature and how integrating nature in learning allows them to really benefit from that,” Hidalgo County Head Start Director Teresa Flores said during commissioner’s court Tuesday. “So, I’m excited about all that.”

The county is funding the $5.5 million project through the Administration for Children and Families/Office of Head Start under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The program was also awarded an Emergency Supplemental Grant in the amount of $1.1 million under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES Act) and received $4.4 million in supplemental funding under the 2021 American Rescue Plan.

Hidalgo County Precinct 4 Commissioner Ellie Torres, who will assist by approving the designs, spoke about the benefits of these new learning environments.

“It is important for a child’s development to connect to the outdoor and natural world, as it will benefit them by using their senses to explore the world around them,” she said in a statement she released.

Flores said outdoor learning and play have been proven to help elicit positive impacts on mental health, social skills and overall performance in school.

The program has begun training its educators to follow the Growing Up WILD curriculum, which was created by the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies.

“Growing Up WILD is an early childhood education curriculum that builds on children’s sense of wonder about nature and invites them to explore wildlife and the world around them,” Kiki Corry, Project WILD coordinator, wrote in an email to The Monitor.

(Courtesy: Hidalgo County Head Start Director Teresa Flores)

The project consists of two phases which will begin this year, Flores said.

In phase one, the program will build one outdoor canopy at each of its 36 locations. The canopy will serve as an outdoor classroom “where teachers can take a class outdoors and link it to the instruction that happens in the classroom and integrate outdoor learning activities,” Flores said.

During this phase, the program will also purchase shuttle buses to transport children from their respective centers to and from the park.

In phase two of the plan, Head Start will begin to build its Discovery Park which will be located on the program’s already owned seven acres of undeveloped land attached to the main administration building, located at 1901 West Highway 107 in McAllen.

This park will feature two trails. The inner trail will surround a playground for students.

“(It’s) a unique type of playground that would encourage the opportunity for us to use playground structures that are your non-traditional kind and lend themselves to develop integrated lessons that allow for language development, as well as fine motor, gross motor development and so forth,” Flores said.

The park will also be later equipped with seven additional canopies with metal roofing, cooling fans and one-sided shading walls that will respectively accommodate 300 students.

Flores said the program aims to incorporate natural features to the park, such as a pond and native plants to attract wildlife.

“We’re looking to design some unique structures that would allow us to have children explore wild animal homes,” she said. “Such as nests and honey combs and cocoons — and you know, those kinds of things that help in the process of learning about animals.”

Asked why Head Start was implementing the project, Flores replied, “One because funding is being provided to us, and two because it provides an opportunity for us to expand learning outside of the classrooms. We have had to be so constricted with the coronavirus.”

Flores said program’s operations have suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic and believes this project will allow students to have space and explore after being isolated.

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