Student Driven – How an Outdoor Classroom Came to Holt, MI

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

That quote by cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead came to mind as I read this article. It should never be underestimated what one small group of passionate people can do. This is especially true of children. Youth often get overlooked when it comes to large-scale community projects and ideas. Their young age and inexperience often puts them at a disadvantage, their voices overshadowed by those of authority figures. Yet it only takes one to actually listen to accomplish great things.

That is exactly what happened in Holt, Michigan, where an abandoned playground space at a local middle school became something the students describe as “magical.”

Holt’s outdoor classroom born of creativity, generosity

Curt Smith, csmith@lsj.com, Lansing State Journal

September 15, 2015 Original article

HOLT – There’s a new classroom at Hope Middle School, and it has no windows.

It lacks walls, too, and the closest thing to a ceiling is a pine tree keeping young learners in the shade during still-summery September days.

And the kids love it. In fact, it was their idea.

Not too long ago, that open space on the south side of the school was a playground for a day-care center. The facility moved on, and the playground was dismantled.

Only scattered woodchips were there to mark a place where children once had fun.

But Hope students saw an opportunity and were bursting with ideas. An outdoor classroom won out.

Youthful energy and creativity – and a local business’s generous donation of money and labor –  made it happen.

Putting it together

Katie Bielecki, who teacher English language arts and social studies, said Hope kids had been mulling possible uses for the space for about three years. When an outdoor classroom appeared to be the way to go – “for their learning and the betterment of the school,” as Bielecki put it – they planned, drafted budgets and even wrote grant proposals.

The work paid off with $1,400 in grant money from the Holt Education Foundation, which partners with the school district to sponsor innovative classroom projects.

And it wasn’t just work. The kids were learning, too.

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Hope Middle School sixth-graders get the school’s outdoor classroom ready for the school year. The open space gives them a place to learn, plan and gather. (Photo: Rod Sanford/Lansing State Journal)

“This became a project-based learning for them,” said Kristin Hundt, who also teaches English language arts and social studies. “They wrote grants, which was language arts. They measured the space, which had a math connection. We talked about what kinds of plants and what kinds of living organisms could be out here to connect to science.”

Aiding in the other disciplines are Kellie Huhn and Danielle Smith, who teach math and science.

But the skills were needed from outside the classroom and in the spring it came from just down the street.

Enter Hayhoe Contracting Services.

“One of my staff went to the school to look at a different project,” owner Amanda Hayhoe-Kruger said. “Katie kind of took him aside and said, ‘I have an idea for an outdoor classroom’ and was wondering if we’d be interested in hearing more about it.”

When it came time to meet, the children’s zeal impressed the businesswoman and teachers alike. Sketches and diagrams indicated just what the students were looking for.

“She answered their questions,” Bielecki said of Hayhoe-Kruger. “She was inspired, I guess, by their passion and knowledge, and that they had done some homework before this meeting.

“Sometimes we underestimate the power of kids.”

Hayhoe-Kruger agreed: “They were super excited that there were actually adults other than their teachers who were willing to take the time to listen to them and help them with it.”

Giving back

Her company ended up donating $6,000 in labor and materials. Old car and equipment tires were used as table bases, and stools and benches were made from trees cut down after a storm. There are raised beds for gardening.

“Amanda and her group were just amazing,” Bielecki said.

“I live in Holt, my business is located in Holt, I grew up in Holt and just decided this would be a great way for us to give back to the community,” Hayhoe-Kruger said.

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Weeding is the priority as the Hope Middle School (Holt) sixth graders in teachers Kristin Hundt and Katie Bielecki’s classroom clean up in the school’s outdoor classroom to help get it ready for the school year (Photo: Rod Sanford/Lansing State Journal)

In all, including the grant money, about $7,500 was spent on developing the outdoor classroom. Bielecki said there’s still $900 left to inspire more ideas.

The work was finished by the end of spring break, giving Hope students about six weeks to plan, study, learn and gather outside.

With the current school year just underway at Hope, the outdoor classroom has been used only once so far. Weeds, thanks to a rainy summer, were evident.

On Monday, about 30 sixth-graders were pulling them.

Still, the place is a hit with the kids.

“I think of it as more of a study place after school,” said Leilani Ibrahim, 11. “It’s really creative.”

“It’s like a magical place. It’s like a fairy tale,” said Alshoun Jones, also 11.

“You can read, learn and just treat yourself out here.”

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