With a goal of providing students with experiences outside of the typical four walls, area schools are planning and using outdoor classrooms.
“Outdoor education is important to provide students with experiences outside of the school setting,” said Bill Poock, principal and lead learner at Mid-Prairie West Elementary School in Wellman. “Nature-based education helps students develop attitudes related to sustainability and preservation of our natural resources. We also want to help kids understand that learning happens outside of the walls of the school — and this can be very motivating to many students.”
Poock’s school actually had an outdoor classroom built over 20 years ago, with a pond and trees. But the pond was taken out for safety reasons, and the building was underutilized and, at times, invaded by various animals.
“Now we have an exciting opportunity in the use of Washington County Riverboat Foundation’s grant to renovate the outdoor learning center so that teachers and students will be able to use it daily,” said Poock.
The bulk of the renovation work is being done by local contractors, and, when completed, the space will be maintained by the school custodians, teachers and students.
Teachers and students in West Elementary School’s preschool, kindergarten, third- and fourth-grade classes will be able to use the renovated outdoor learning center daily because it will have electricity to provide cooling during warmer days and heat during cooler days. The learning center also will include four large science tables to allow for seating, and will have space for teachers and students to plant seeds for seedlings to plant in the spring in the school’s adjacent garden.
The garden, built and planted last spring, is a 40- by 40-foot space with raised planters that students built with the help of the Mid-Prairie High School’s FFA team members.
The students planted the garden late in the spring, and teachers maintained it over the summer. They are raising tomatoes, green beans, cantaloupe and zucchini. They also planted perennials in a flower bed to attract butterflies, and there are sunflowers out in the garden, too, added Poock.
“Largely, we want students to be able to maintain the garden,” said Poock. “We could use volunteers over the summers to help with weeding and watering.”
“Right now, some students have harvested the vegetables and eaten them for a snack,” said Poock. “We hope to be able to plant enough someday to offer some foods for lunch.”
The school garden also will provide an opportunity for children to learn about nutrition, added Poock.
“We wish to promote school gardens with educational goals to help students, school staff and families make the connection between growing food and good diets, develop life skills and increase environmental awareness,” he said.
Like West Elementary School’s outdoor learning center, the garden also was funded by a Washington County Riverboat Foundation grant.
“We are extremely grateful to the WCRF for the awarded grant moneys to be able to do these two important projects for our school,” said Poock.
“We are in a ‘work in progress’ mode,” said Poock. “We hope to have some sort of ceremony to dedicate the space for use at a later date.”
The Washington Community School District also is planning an outdoor learning center.
“We do not have one yet,” said Willie Stone, Washington school district superintendent. “We are in the talking and planning phase still.”
Fairfield Middle School was constructed with an open courtyard in the center of the building, where students and teachers can take a break from their typical schedule to enjoy the sun’s rays and a cool breeze. The courtyard has been used for many years, but it’s really been spruced up in the last four years when rocks were brought in to fill the depressions around a few drains.
Jessica Sandbothe, who teaches fifth- through eighth-grade Title I reading at the school, routinely takes her class to the courtyard, where the students read on their own for 30 minutes. At the end of class, the students gather round for a group discussion on the tables or in the many lawn chairs available. Sandbothe said it’s a nice way to break up the day and get fresh air. FMS Principal Laura Atwood added that students and teachers are able to better calm their nervous system when they spend time outdoors.
Atwood noted that there are still projects left to do in the courtyard, such as removing the stumps of the ash trees that were cut down a few years ago, and using the garden boxes on site to plant fruits and vegetables. She’d also like to add a writing space like a chalkboard so teachers could conduct their entire class outside.
FMS sixth-grade science teacher Cory Klehm has helped with the remodeling efforts in the courtyard, and said he tries to use it once a week, even during the winter months. He said his students are thinking of ways to add a shelter to the courtyard so it could be used when it’s raining.
Klehm said the students were the ones who built the garden boxes meant for produce. Jennifer DeManuele-Kinder’s special education students in grades fifth through eighth are planning to plant strawberries in them.
“The students have done a ton of work on [the courtyard]. Now we just have to get the teachers to use it on a more regular basis,” Klehm said. “A lot of reading teachers take their classes outdoors.”
About nine years ago, Klehm and his students created a rain garden on the west side of the school, just west of its parking lot. They planted 3,000 seeds from 30 different species of native flowers to create a garden designed to soak up water from the school’s roof and parking lot. Klehm said the rain garden allows the rain water to drain slowly into the ground instead of entering the sanitary sewer where it is sent to the wastewater treatment plant. The city of Fairfield has been trying to fix this problem whereby clean rain water enters the sanitary sewer line where it is needlessly treated as if it were sewage.
Klehm and his students collect seeds from these flowers and use them to plant natural prairies, such as one going in near the water treatment facility.
“I’ve got tubs and tubs of seeds now,” Klehm said. “The goal is to try to get the kids interested in being outside. I’ll take the kids to the rain garden to work but mostly to observe. It makes them curious, gets them to ask questions, and that leads to learning.”