Outdoor Learning Center in Harlingen a playground of learning for Wilson kids

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HARLINGEN — “Peekaboo,” said the tiny girl clamoring over a titanic truck tire.

A boy in a Superman shirt shoveled sand, a girl flipped plastic hamburger patties on a plastic grill, and a smiling boy blurted, “A dolphin” as he and other children played around the water table.

The late morning sun showed bright and beautiful across the Early Childhood Outdoor Learning Center at Wilson Elementary where children played with their friends and talked excitedly about shovels in sandboxes and cars on pallets and a wall with pans for musical explorations.

They painted rocks and the tires and the wooden tables spread across the center as a sort of playground of the imagination. Here the kindergartners at Wilson find a place were innovation and cooperation and discovery percolate in the minds of the very young and establish the building blocks of their lives.

“It’s an outdoor play space where students can go out and have different experiences,” said Michele Todd, principal at Wilson Elementary at 16495 Primera Road.

“We have a water table, we have a fan table, we have a kitchen, an art wall, a play space where they can build with construction,” Todd said excitedly. “We have construction, trucks and vehicles, we have little cars that our custodian made and just a lot of neat play areas.”

The journey to an Outdoor Learning Center where the kids played Thursday morning began in January when Amanda Sandoval and Leslie Gonzalez visited the Early Childhood Academy. The two kindergarten teachers considered their youngsters at Wilson should have such a place too.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for our kids, for them to have their own space to be creative and build their emotional intelligence,” Sandoval said. “We got a lot of our ideas from the Early Childhood Academy campus, so we just reached out to our community members like Casas Group and Home Depot, Lowe’s, H-E-B, and Walmart for donations, parents even.”

She and Gonzalez both extended special thanks to Casas Group, a construction company.

“The Casas Group donated everything for us that’s built out there so that was our biggest achievement there,” Sandoval said.

Children play at the Early Childhood Outdoor Learning Center at Wilson Elementary on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (Courtesy: HCISD)

The time of conception to the time of completion was surprisingly brief, only about two months, and throughout this time the kids joined in the enthusiasm and even some of the work, such as painting small stones with bright colors and helping to put things away.

And now …

“They love it,” Gonzalez said. “Every day they come in they’re like, ‘Can we go outside to the Outdoor Learning Center.’ So they get very excited, and it’s great seeing them just talk to one another.”

In the three days she and other teachers have taken the kids to the center, they’ve seen the progress of the children talking to one another and cooperating and building things, even the intangible things like their imagination.

“Seeing them getting out of their comfort zone and how much they can do with toys and having that visibility of real objects is an awesome thing to see,” Gonzalez said.

Back at the Outdoor Learning Center, two young girls shouted “Aaaah!” as they ran to the kitchen. A girl pushed herself in a tricycle across the gravel, and at the music wall where each pan yielded a different sound when tapped by a spoon, a young boy created his own improvisational symphony.