What drives a project forward? Is it the idea to create a project? Is it the motivation behind the project itself? Is it one person who acts as a project champion? Is it a group of people led by a dynamic individual? …or something else?

The driving force behind a project can vary depending on many factors. The goal of the Outdoor Learning Environments program at Prairie Rivers of Iowa is to bring those factors together and to support communities in developing an appreciation for the outdoors and community by creating or enhancing an outdoor learning space together.

Expectations were unknown in originally creating and launching the Pilot Outdoor Learning Environment Grant Program in partnership with the Living Roadway Trust Fund. The first applicant inquiry came from Kate Zimmerman who is the Executive Director (and only full-time employee) of Ringgold County Conservation. She is also the only applicant to make it to the implementation phase in the first year of the grant program.

This leaves us wondering what is unique about Kate and her project that has moved it along faster than others.

First of all, anyone who has met Kate would probably agree that “spark plug” is a good metaphor for her personality and drive. She has been working to develop plans for a new nature center over the past several years and has built a large community of support for that project. By tying the outdoor learning environment into an existing development project there was more support and resources already established.

Kate also had a close relationship with the local school where she has hosted many educational programs. She got the school’s curriculum development coordinator on board. This is a key move to getting the school involved with the project. Now the coordinator can promote the outdoor learning environment to all the teaching staff and help them integrate outdoor learning into their curriculum. She also got a youth leadership group involved which enabled the youth voice to be involved in the planning and design of the project.

As a new program we were lucky to have such a willing applicant to help test the new application process. Kate’s strong will and determination were critical in this endeavor to work with us through each phase.

Finding the right landscape architect for work on the planning and design was also critical. Eric Doll  from Jeffrey L. Bruce & Company was a great design consultant for this project. He has experience in working with community members on developing design plans from his work with ISU Extension’s Community Visioning Program and is also knowledgeable and passionate about Iowa native plants. His creativity and playful nature was also helpful in developing an outdoor learning space. The site conditions were a little tricky, as the nature center is at the top of a steep slope. The design called for grade change and manipulation in order to create a large and easily traversed space. Eric was also willing to work one-on-one with the contractor in order to discuss the design details and how that would work with implementation.


As we reflect now on the program developments and outdoor learning environments, it becomes apparent that the grant process, site developments, and implementation are not the only part of this program. This idea of creating outdoor spaces for people to learn, is a good one, but the key component is the people and community itself. People sharing ideas and passions are what keep ideas like this alive and thriving. The details and resources tend to fill in once a committed group of people is involved. The learning process is also more about the journey to get there, then the end result. The end result is wonderful, but reflecting on all the things learned on the way are where true learning experiences have happened.

The Living Roadway Trust Fund has taken over managing their grant program for outdoor learning environments, and they currently aren’t accepting new applications pending review and possible changes. Prairie Rivers of Iowa is still committed to creating a network for outdoor learning

environments that helps connect people to other resources and providing opportunities to host workshops and a statewide conference next summer 2018 to support people in creating and utilizing outdoor learning spaces. We are also excited about other projects underway currently in the grant process. This includes other county conservation projects, and schools who are working with ISU Landscape Architecture professor, Bambi Yost, who specializes in green schoolyards and innovative playscapes.



Workshop Dates:

10AM-12PM November 18, 2017 Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge: Collecting prairie seed with Patrick Bryant, People for Pollinators Coordinator

1-3PM November 30, 2017 Ringgold County’s Dragoon Trace Nature Center: Hear more about Kate’s story of Developing and Implementing an OLE Project and Prairie Seeding Demonstration

Email Program Coordinator, Annie Fangman at afangman@prrcd.org or call 515-232-0048 to RSVP and receive more details.


Get Outside!!