An Inspired Garden: A New Outdoor Learning Environment opens at the St. John’s Child Development Center

Colleen McDaniel, owner of The Inspired Garden of Badin, is installing the Outdoor Learning Environment.

By Susan Shinn Turner

It’s hard to tell who’s more excited about this month’s opening of the Outdoor Learning Center at the Child Development Center — the children or Colleen McDaniel.

McDaniel, owner of The Inspired Garden is based in Badin. She holds contractor and landscape contractor’s licenses. She has been tasked with installing the OLE based on a design by the Natural Learning Initiative, part of the School of Design at N.C. State University.

“We’re building the outdoor mud kitchen as we speak,” McDaniel says one recent sunny morning. “The intent is to let them get their hands all dirty and make a mess.”

Getting outside and exploring is the whole point behind the Outdoor Learning Environment. But it’s like no playground you’ve ever seen. Instead it’s full of natural landscaping and materials, and is separated into areas by age. In addition to the mud kitchen, you’ll find a water play area, a sand play box, logs cut crosswise into individual seats and situated in a circle for an outdoor classroom, a teepee village, a log living room, and more. Short bamboo poles with ropes attached will help with traffic flow along the sidewalks.

This is the third design McDaniel has implemented, having also worked at the Charlotte Nature Museum and Wing Haven. The OLE is typical in size for other daycares, according to Mary Archer, a landscape architect and design associate with NLI.

“There’s a huge movement in North Carolina to create outdoor learning environments,” she says. “There are a lot in Raleigh. St. John’s will become a great model for the region and across North Carolina. We were so excited to see members of the congregation embrace this project and support it.”

Archer and her team thought through every detail of the OLE — from the different play areas to the diverse planting. They chose perennial flowers, shade trees, and sensory plants such as rosemary and other herbs. The children will also be planting a vegetable garden and eventually harvest fruit from trees planted in the area.

“We had a very participatory design process,” Archer says. “We got wonderful feedback from the St. John’s community.”

That included a parent-teacher survey, and in-person workshops with pastors and teachers.

“We’ve been so excited with what we’ve seen,” she says.

“As a pastor at St. John’s, it is incredible to see our dreams realized in the building of the OLE,” Pastor Laura says. “It is a state-of-the-art OLE. As a mom, I am thrilled that my children will be able to have space that encourages them to explore and play in the dirt. My kids love exploring in our backyard and ‘forest’ of trees. Now, they will have the same thing plus more at the OLE.”

”Research tells us that children do not get enough imaginative play outdoors,” she adds. ”This allows us to fill in that gap.”

Michael and Danielle DeNise have two children, Moses and Olive, who attend the CDC.

“We are so excited about the new OLE,” she says. “We are thrilled that their imaginations will be at work with water features, outdoor kitchens and more. And Moses is dying to run on the sidewalks. He keeps saying, “I’m gonna run as fast as a race car on that!”

“Every aspect of this plan has been thought out and researched,” McDaniel says.

While she’s worked, she’s noticed lots of little faces peering out the windows onto the OLE.

“The kids just cannot wait to get out here,” she says.

McDaniel has a fine arts degree from UNCC, and is a self-taught horticulturalist.

“This is just the most wonderful project I’ve ever done,” she says. “Everything I’ve done in my life has led me to this moment.”

How Can I Get Involved?


We’ll be offering tours to the congregation because you are going to want to see all of the features! What an exciting time for us all, but especially for those adorable children who will enjoy this amazing space every day

Watch for more info to come.

Plant Some Joy

The Plant Some Joy campaign continues! You can help purchase shrubs and trees to be planted in the OLE on the behalf of a friend or family member and we will send them a card to celebrate. Recognize your Valentine in a unique way, or pay it forward in honor of an upcoming birthday or anniversary. You can even bless someone “just because.”

It’s easy.


Follow all of the prompts, leave a short message, and  we will take it from there.




Related Posts

Get Involved