Lab School

A University of Delaware student and a child interact in the Lab’s School’s outdoor mud kitchen, located on the College of Education and Human Development’s Children’s Campus.

May 31, 2024

UD’s Lab School helps children, teachers and community members learn in and from nature

For nearly 90 years, the University of Delaware’s Lab School, housed within the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), has served children from the age of 6 months through kindergarten. Since 2017, the Lab School has established itself as a leader in nature-based education, educating its preschoolers in a rich, outdoor classroom. Located on CEHD’s Children’s Campus, it also complements the Early Learning Center, which serves infants and children through age 5, and The College School, which serves children in grades 1 through 8.

Dorit Radnai-Griffin, director of the Lab School, shared her thoughts on fostering meaningful relationships, the value of nature-based education and supporting the next generation of early childhood educators.

Dorit Radnai-Griffin is director of CEHD’s Lab School.
Dorit Radnai-Griffin is director of CEHD’s Lab School.

Why do you prioritize nature-based education? 

Radnai-Griffin: Nature-based education has been connected to incredible benefits for children in all areas of development. One example is in the ability to engage in scientific inquiry. The children ask questions about what they find, observe and experience. They feel the wind on their face, the rain drops or the sun’s rays, and have deep, meaningful discussions about these changes. The children may wonder “how much rain fell last night?” and can actually measure the amount using a rain gauge with their teachers’ support. Other activities, like scavenger hunts, allow the children to further practice their skills in language, writing, observation, measurement, collaboration and so much more. Yet one of the most profound impacts has been on the mental health and well-being of our children. Similarly, teaching staff have also noticed positive changes due to their time spent outdoors. To enhance the benefits of being in nature, we use mindfulness practices in our classrooms. These practices extend the gains of a nature-based approach.

Can you tell us what it means to be a “lab” school?

Radnai-Griffin: The Lab School was created with the goal of supporting students and professionals interested in children and their development, including UD undergraduate and graduate students, UD faculty, early childhood education (ECE) providers from across the state of Delaware and Delaware high schoolers interested in becoming future educators.

Just like a chemistry lab exists to support chemistry students, the Lab School exists to support the next generation of early childhood educators. Under the coaching and mentoring of the Lab School’s experienced and highly qualified teachers, UD students get to practice what they learn in their courses and gain hands-on experience with children in a safe and supportive environment. Together, as members of our teaching teams, they complete lesson plans, work with families, collect observational data and more. Graduate students and faculty also use our school as a research site, conducting important studies like alumna Annette Pic’s, Class of 2023, recent research on conflict resolution. In her study, she found that children’s outdoor free play supports their developing social-emotional and cognitive skills, noting that children who were able to resolve their conflicts outside did so with much less involvement from a teacher.

As a model site for ECE, we also invite Delaware providers to visit our school for various professional development opportunities related to nature-based education, mindfulness and other topics. Additionally, we partner with CEHD’s Delaware Institute for Excellence in Early Childhood and the Delaware Department of Education in their “Let’s Go Outside” initiative, a professional learning experience about the benefits of outdoor classroom environments. We also have partnerships with Delaware schools like St. George’s Technical High School, that, for years, continues to send students to observe our teaching, participate in our classrooms and debrief with our teachers and staff about what they learned. Our hope is that they’ll pursue an ECE degree at UD. Like other efforts at CEHD, we’re hoping this partnership helps reduce Delaware’s teacher shortage.

A child makes letters out of rocks during an outdoor activity at the Lab School.

A child makes letters out of rocks during an outdoor activity at the Lab School.

What are some other ways that you’re engaged with the community? 

Radnai-Griffin: Over the years, the Lab School has participated with different community agencies, most recently partnering with Wilmington Head Start to provide professional development, coaching and mentoring on nature-based education for their ECE providers and administrators. We’ve also hosted a summer camp for a group of Wilmington Head Start children and staff that was funded by the Lang Cares Foundation. And now, because of that relationship, we’ve been able to connect Wilmington Head Start with others at UD — such as McKay Jenkins in the Department of English and Anna Wik in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences — who are working with them to enhance their outdoor spaces.

With the Lab School’s recent award from the Delaware Association for Environmental Education, it’s clear that you have a lot to celebrate! What are you most proud of? 

Radnai-Griffin: I am most proud of the relationships we have with our children and their families, and with our undergraduate students. Relationships are the foundation for everything we do here. Our goal — always — is for the Lab School to be a place where children feel welcomed and supported and a place that families trust. When a grandparent comes to pick up a child — even if that person picks up the child once every two weeks — we want to know their name, we want to welcome them and to know who they are. The value we place on relationships goes along with our philosophy of education. When the teaching teams plan for the children in their classrooms, ​they don’t just plan for a group of children based on their age. They build on the children’s interests and skills, using daily observations and, occasionally, direct input from families. For example, in the springtime, we don’t just do a spring unit because winter is ending. Instead, we look at our children and see what they’re interested in. Some may be interested in water play, while others may be interested in animals or something else. We provide the activities that really speak to them and, in turn, support their academic skills, social-emotional skills and other development.

The Lab School will celebrate its 90th anniversary with a community event next fall. To learn more, visit its website

This article is the second of a three-part series with CEHD Children’s Campus directors. Read more about The College School.

Students from St. George’s Technical High School look for worms with children during a visit to the Lab School.

Students from St. George’s Technical High School look for worms with children during a visit to the Lab School.

Article by  Jessica Henderson. Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of the Lab School.

Read this article on UDaily.