The Creston National Fish Hatchery (NFH) earned the national designation of a certified Nature Explore Classroom (NEC) from the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation in September 2012. The Creston NEC was designed by the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and funded through a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), Division of Education Outreach.

The grant was administered by the Arbor Day Foundation. The classroom was developed as a gateway to connect youth to the outdoors, educating youth using research-based principles for integrating nature into their daily learning.

Creston NFH is the first facility to receive the celebrated certification in the State of Montana. The Hatchery serves as a national outdoor classroom model for others throughout the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It joins a growing network of organizations that have created effective outdoor learning environments for children, allowing for idea-sharing, peer support, continuous learning, and development.

The Nature Explore Classroom offers interactive elements including musical instruments made of natural materials, climbing structures, wooden blocks, garden areas, and natural materials for building and creating art that give children important and inspiring nature experiences. While connecting children with nature, such unstructured play and activities are also shown to enhance concentration, develop creativity and problem-solving, relieve stress, and improve skills in many areas.

NEC strengthened existing partnerships between the Hatchery and other groups and was instrumental in developing new partnerships. Hatchery staff, many volunteers, donors, and the Montana Tribal Youth Conservation Corps, worked to transform this outdoor space into a multiple use area for educational and family engagement opportunities. The Forest Service, Glacier Sawing Team, local timber companies, and service organizations all aided this transition. This assistance included actions from helping to remove unsafe trees to providing cookies and ice cream to the YCC crew.

Creston NFH’s NEC is continuing to evolve with new partners like Ducks Unlimited, which is contributing a wildlife viewing area overlooking the pond. Many similar plans are in the works. This sustainable area gains community support almost daily.

The NEC provides an opportunity to use the area as a learning environment and can be used as an opportunity for cross-curriculum education. Whether just going for a nature walk or incorporating the experience into classroom curriculum, there are teachable moments for all ages and levels; all helping to better engage and educate future stewards of our fish and wildlife who will pass along their knowledge to others.

The Hatchery staff allows community programs, school groups, home school groups, volunteers, and others use of the area. They do ask that visitors call and schedule time in advance because of the popularity of the area.