Outdoor classroom brings new dimension to students in Inverness

  • Holy Family School fourth-graders Eliza Incledon, left, Keira Kellar and Aubrey Thiem weave willow branches creating a natural fence in their outdoor classroom.

      Holy Family School fourth-graders Eliza Incledon, left, Keira Kellar and Aubrey Thiem weave willow branches creating a natural fence in their outdoor classroom. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Holy Family School second-grade girls create an outdoor dinner table, inspired by one of the "Boxcar Children" novels.

      Holy Family School second-grade girls create an outdoor dinner table, inspired by one of the "Boxcar Children" novels. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Holy Family School fifth-graders study in their outdoor writing class.

      Holy Family School fifth-graders study in their outdoor writing class. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Holy Family School seventh-grader Braden Carroll moves mulch around in the outdoor classroom.

      Holy Family School seventh-grader Braden Carroll moves mulch around in the outdoor classroom. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • This is the concept plan for the learning stations in the outdoor classroom at Holy Family Catholic Academy in Inverness.

    This is the concept plan for the learning stations in the outdoor classroom at Holy Family Catholic Academy in Inverness. Courtesy Holy Family Catholic Academy

 
Posted9/22/2014 10:55 AM

At Holy Family Catholic Academy in Inverness, recess has taken on a whole new meaning.

Sure, they have the traditional play lot and jungle gym, but ask students what they prefer and they point to the innovative Outdoor Classroom project, installed over the summer on the 20-acre campus of the church and school.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's fun," says fourth-grader Bryson Turner of Lake Zurich. "We got to design our own garden and now we're taking out weeds and moving mulch."

Their garden, located near the rain and pollinator gardens, is situated near a restored wetlands area of the campus. Since returning to school, students say they have seen butterflies and dragonflies flock to the area.

School officials worked with Nature Explore, a company based in Lincoln, Nebraska, to create their outdoor classroom design. Its designers spent two days at the school, and set up nine, nature-based learning stations, all designed to stimulate children's interests and creativity.

"Part of it is because we have these beautiful 20 acres," says Principal Kate O'Brien. "We always wanted to make as much use of our space as possible."

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During recess time last week, fifth-graders worked in the "art area," painting stones they found to serve as tic-tac-toe markers, while fourth-graders like Bryson wove willow weeds for a hut they are building.

Second-graders, led by their teacher, Kath Lyon, explored the so-called "action area," a wooded section off to one side, where they recreated one of the "Boxcar Children" books they read in class, using some of the natural materials they found on the ground.

"Any time you can integrate what you're doing in the classroom and bring it somewhere else, it makes education exciting," Lyon said.

A third-grade class sat on tree stumps in the so-called gathering area, as they worked on a reading unit. And a group of junior high school students was upbeat as its members pushed wheelbarrows to move mulch into the area.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It builds character," said eighth-grader Marcin Malysa of South Barrington.

O'Brien said that since installing the outdoor classroom, students have been more engaged in class and interested in nature. She points to studies that say exposing students to nature helps improve concentration, boost creativity and collaboration.

"When they're encouraged to be outside, everything just seems interesting," O'Brien said. "Their imagination takes off."

Nature Explore is a collaborative program of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, whose mission is to change the way students look at their learning environment through outdoor classrooms.

Holy Family officials point to a series of grants that helped them establish their outdoor classroom, including the Illinois Schoolyard Habitat Action Grant, funded by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources; the Jadel Youth Fund; the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Foundation; the Illinois Conservation Foundation; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We're committed to developing lifelong learners," says school spokeswoman Deb Atkins, "and that requires exposing students to opportunities to think outside the box -- beyond their textbook and beyond the classroom."

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