George Unseld Early Childhood Learning Center: An Exercise in Collaboration

Opened in 2012, George Unseld Early Childhood Learning Center provides outstanding educational and service opportunities for its students. It is a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility, with an unfortunate lack of trees to provide shade for the outdoor playground. It is one of the campuses that led us to initiate a partnership with Jefferson County Public Schools that we call the Campus Tree Canopy Enhancement Program.

In the fall of 2015, one of TreesLouisville’s major donors attended a meeting at the facility and offered to help fund tree planting to enhance the school grounds. It was during the process of initiating our partnership with Unseld that we were exposed to the term “Nature Deficit Disorder”. Stephanie Johnson, the principal at the time, told us that Nature Deficit Disorder is a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book¬†Last Child In The Woods, meaning that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems. Richard Louv has stated “nature deficit disorder is not meant to be a medical diagnosis but rather to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world.” It is a compelling argument to provide trees in the play area for the children.

In order to provide a thoughtful, comprehensive design for the project, TreesLouisville turned to Dr. Chris Sass at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s Department of Landscape Architecture. Coincidentally, one of Dr. Sass’s senior-level students was very interested in Early Childhood Development through outdoor play. Wes Griffith developed a design for an “Outdoor Adventureland” that includes flowering trees, trees with varied bark texture and leaf shape and color, and as the trees grow, lots of shade. The concept is to stimulate all five senses and to help develop mindfulness and a connection to the natural environment.

The design also includes more trees in the parking areas to help mitigate the Urban Heat Island effect and improve air quality. Trees were also planted along the path outside the play area that is utilized by neighbors and students at the adjacent Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

One of the strengths of our campus enhancement partnership is that the principals, teacher, and plant operators have involved many of their students in caring for the trees. Since that isn’t really an option at Unseld, the JCPS Grounds Grews have really stepped up. We recently held an In-House Training Course using Unseld as the site for a hands-on training to provide Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for Category 3 Ornamental and Pest Management Licenses.

The project at Unseld ECLC represents everything that we hope to accomplish with our TL/JCPS Campus Tree Campus Enhancement Program. We want to create more pleasant learning environments for our students and expose them to nature. That is the reason we select tree species for diversity and design for texture, color, contrast and light direction. Working with all levels of the JCPS system creates ownership and value of the investment in trees and campus care. That is why we work hard to involve as many people as we can in our projects, including the surrounding neighborhoods. We are creating educational opportunities for all concerned. Our goal is to ensure that everyone understands and appreciates the value of the community forest.