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A Seedling of an Idea: Creating an Outdoor Classroom

Amy Hamacher, Science Coordinator, Abrams Hebrew Academy
October 25, 2018 | Uncategorized

"Watch how the water drop rolls off the leaf!" exclaimed a student after putting drops of water on different leaves found outside. The third-grade class is in the schoolyard continuing an indoor science activity of water drops on different surfaces (FOSS Water and Climate Module). They are outside the front of the school making real-life connections with environmental phenomena. Yes—students are outside for science—but doing so sitting in the asphalt parking lot, balancing notebooks on their knees, and watching out for cars dropping off tardy students. Is there a better way?

Abrams Hebrew Academy is a preschool to 8th grade private Jewish day school in Yardley, PA. The school recently implemented the FOSS science program in grades K-8 and the teachers believe in doing all of the program’s outdoor activities. The school is surrounded by fences and asphalt parking lot on three sides, but it does have a small square of grass in front of the school. After many journeys to this uninspired space, the idea of transforming that small plot of grass into a dedicated learning space took root. The idea started with one inspired teacher who grew the team to include school administration. The plan was developed and pitched to school alumna, and the school received a generous donation to get started.

Students working with FOSS materials at an outdoor table

Middle school students at Abrams Hebrew Academy engage with FOSS materials in their newly constructed outdoor science area.

After funding was secured, the next step was to identify needs vs wants and to prioritize spending. The development team visited other schools that had outdoor teaching/learning spaces to get a better idea of what the outdoor space could become. We saw elements that we liked, and some elements that would not work for our school. For example, one school kept a chicken coop using a solar powered door on the coop. Another had a huge vegetable garden and bee hives. Amazing, but not what we were ready for. We searched for a landscaping firm to help us and chose PLANT, a local landscape and design business that had experience working with elementary schools. We learned that local resources and community help were an important part of the decision. These community partners live and work in our town and are invested in helping local schools. Everyone we talked with was eager to support the vision of children learning outdoors. Our idea started to grow.

Needs: Safety first. The space needed to be fenced in such a way that the fence became "walls" of the outdoor classroom. Non-chemically-treated wood from Pennsylvania trees was used for the fence and gate. Existing plants and future plants were carefully considered so that they were not toxic or physically dangerous. Poison ivy, plants with thorns, and sharp-edged grasses were removed. A large oak tree was saved by trimming the tree. The deciduous tree gives natural shade during the warmer months, yet allows the sun to warm the space in the fall and winter, and is a great resource for the kindergarten module, FOSS Trees and Weather. A grassy sitting area was left for groups to gather and for tables and benches to be added in following years as finances allow. A large part of the budget was spent on a retaining wall and putting in proper drainage. Not exciting, but necessary for long-term use of the space. The area allowed for both large-scale planting and planters for classroom projects. Easy access to water and electricity was also considered a need.

The outdoor area

The outdoor area nears completion.

Wants: We wanted to enhance natural features of the space and be sure it could function across the curriculum. A lockable shed with windows and a wide double door for easy access was placed in one corner. The shed provides storage for gardening equipment and classroom supplies such as clipboards, magnifying glasses, and books. While we had a hose, an outdoor garden sink gives the students a place to wash hands and fill watering cans. Seating was purposefully chosen to be modular. Stable yet light-weight picnic-style tables could convert to bench-style seating and were easy to move around. Now we have a place to experiment, put on a play, or have an outdoor writer’s workshop.

The entrance to the completed outdoor area at Abrams Hebrew Academy.

The entrance to the completed outdoor area at Abrams Hebrew Academy.

Our budget allowed for the creation of a water feature made from rocks quarried from our county. Local building regulations do not allow for a pond or pool with children nearby. So the water feature was designed to be continuously flowing/recycling water stream rather than a pond. Another nice "want" was a large outdoor chalkboard that serves as a focusing spot for the students. A mailbox was another fun addition for students to leave observations and messages to other classes as they visited. Weather equipment and child- safe gardening tools exhausted our original donation. Our seedling of an idea was starting to flower.

The completed water feature.

The completed water feature.

This beloved outdoor classroom has endless possibilities. As we move forward we will work with local business and community groups like the Girl and Boy Scouts, allowing us to add many more student-led projects. Our next additions will feature planting a pollinator garden and starting a worm compost bin. Bird feeders, toad garden, lending library—so many future projects to add to the space. What is most rewarding is seeing the level of excitement from the students and parents. As the science teacher, I of course, have many outdoor classes planned, and it is rewarding to see other teachers, no matter the subject, engaging with lessons outdoors also.

As I write this, a 6th grade student walks past me in the hall wearing a T shirt that says "WIFI is out – guess I have to go outside to play." Students need to go outdoors and connect with the environment on many levels—going to the schoolyard regularly may be just the incentive this 6th grader needs to fall in love with the natural world enough to go outside even when the WIFI is on. It is his generation that will face many of the environmental challenges facing Earth in the years to come. We at Abrams truly hope our students will go outside regularly to play, learn, appreciate, and protect our school environment. It is our hope that this outdoor classroom continues to grow, flourish and allow for many generations of students to learn and connect to the natural world.

explore the plants growing in one of their outdoor planter boxes

The WIFI is working just fine, but these Abrams Hebrew Academy students are content to explore the plants growing in one of their outdoor planter boxes.