Posts Tagged ‘outdoor classroom’

Wisconsin Teacher Brings Forest Classroom to Public School

Forest classrooms are more common in Europe, but lately there have been several popping up around the United States. Generally speaking though, these have been preschools run by nature centers or private schools.

Yet one teacher did his research and proposed a forest kindergarten to his public school board…and was given the green light to start one. As far as we know, this is the first one we have heard of that has been created at the kindergarten level and in a public school setting and this is really exciting news. Hopefully, this means that the idea of forest classrooms is gaining ground in the education world in the U.S. Maybe we’ll even see the concept at the upper elementary or middle school level someday?

It’s something to hope for at any rate. Well done Mr. Dargatz, and we hope that your passion and the model class you’ve created will serve as a role model to others hoping to do the same. 🙂


Woodside Elementary teacher shows students what the outdoors can teach them

A Woodside Elementary School teacher is using his love of the outdoors to teach students with a unique education style.

Peter Dargatz is in his third year teaching nature kindergarten to students. They spend time every day outdoors learning about various things such as types of animals and the seasons. It is an adaptation of what’s called nature kindergarten, a curriculum popular on the east and west coasts of the United States and in Europe.

The definition of nature kindergarten came about due to misconceptions surrounding it and other similar programs called forest kindergarten and forest preschool.

“Forest kindergarten is technically pre-kindergarten age, 3- and 4-year-olds that are outside essentially all day. Nature kindergarten is actual kindergarten age, 5 turning 6, and it doesn’t have to be outside from the beginning to the end,” Dargatz explained.

The idea to implement a similar type of program in his classroom stemmed from what he observed in one of his kindergarten students.

Inspiration for the program

Two years ago, he noticed that one of his students was excelling academically. But when he shifted his classroom activities back to a traditional kindergarten setting for the last week of school, he noticed something wasn’t right.

“I noticed that she could not problem solve when she was with a peer. I noticed that her fine motor skills were lacking. I noticed that she didn’t know how to initiate play,” Dargatz said. “She didn’t know how to do these things. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’m really focused on the wrong thing here. Like all my kids were doing awesome academically, but I’m not really preparing them for the next level. I’m not preparing the whole child.”

That, along with the birth of his first daughter, caused Dargatz to realize that he wouldn’t want his daughter in a classroom like his.

“I realized that I had to change things around,” Dargatz said.

Starting it up

That summer, Dargatz started doing research centered around the whole child approach. It also happened to be during that summer of 2014 that he started to volunteer on the Ice Age Trail, starting a “Tyke Hike” program.

It inspired him to try a similar program out in his classroom.

“My school has access to this beautiful parcel of land that nothing was going on in up to three years ago. It was just there,” Dargatz said,”We had just put in a garden five years ago, so I knew there was interest in outdoor learning opportunities.”

In August 2014, after several meetings with school and district administrators and studying Schlitz Audobon’s nature-based preschool, Dargatz was given the green light. He then built an approximately half-mile trail on the land with the help from his fellow Ice Age volunteers.

Side trails have also been created, and his students have helped restore the land by planting new trees and plants to replace invasive plants and grazing grass that took over the land, according to a member spotlight of Dargatz’s class on the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) website.

Program structure

Dargatz’s class spends some time outside every day. At the very least, students take a hike out to recess. Usually, they will complete at least one full lesson outside, with time built in for natural play. With nature days, the group reads a picture book on a topic building off the previous nature day. They then explore a part of the land in coordination with the day’s topic while finding new lessons.

Also part of the program is Dargatz’s emphasis on taking risks. He teaches basic lessons on boundaries, stick safety, spatial awareness, and the like. And although he is there to help students make safe choices, Dargatz said he is there to guide, not control, their decision-making.

“When given the chance and space to be independent in their decisions, they are motivated to safely learn, grow and achieve in our outdoor environment,” Dargatz said in the member spotlight.

Program growth, benefits

When the program started, Dargatz said, he learned a lot on the fly. It was just his classroom at first. Now, it is run in all five of the school’s kindergarten classrooms in some capacity and has a collaboration with the Retzer Nature Center in Waukesha. The school district is considering expanding the program into first grade. Parents, the school and community members have been very supportive of it, according to Dargatz.

Retzer Nature Center naturalist Larry Kascht has also noticed the program’s benefits, as well as with the partnership the center has with Dargatz’s class. The class alternates between visiting the center and hosting the center’s naturalists.

“It’s been a real fruitful partnership and a real fun model for all of us to pursue,” Kascht said.

Dargatz’s fellow kindergarten teacher Courtney Klein has seen the benefits of the program with her students as well. She noted that her students have become more independent, ask higher-level questions and think deeper on concepts.

“I think they’re more engaged because they want to be outside,” Klein said. “I think it’s natural for little kids to want to play, and I’m proud to be teaching in a district that appreciates that, that we’re not cutting recess minutes and getting rid of play time because it is so crucial to their development.”


Tips for Teaching Groups Outdoors

Teaching kids outside is a great time. It can be a fun day of exploring and learning about the natural world. But if leading a group outdoors gives you anxiety, here are a few helpful tips from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology BirdSleuth program that can help you out.


Outdoor Teaching Tips

What’s Keeping you Inside? Tips for Leading Groups Outdoors

By Barbara Jacobs-Smith K-12 Education Team Resident Teacher Advisor
This blog is the first in our series on Outdoor Education.

As teachers and leaders of young people, I think we have an obligation to take children outside to learn whenever it’s practical to do so, even if it takes us out of our comfort zone. Whether you’re a seasoned outdoor educator or new to taking groups outside, here are some general tips and techniques that can make leading a group in the great outdoors a positive, successful, and rewarding experience for everyone.


1. Plan ahead

As the leader, it is very important that you feel comfortable and confident. Before you go out with the kids, go out by yourself and scout the area. Walk the trail or explore the habitat. Consider where you’ll stop, how long you’ll spend, what features are noteworthy, and concepts that are applicable to the area. What questions can you pose to children, what activities lend themselves to the area, and how will you encourage structured interaction with nature? Make note of any potential hazards. Spending some quiet reflective time in the space you’ll be using can help make it feel like an extension of your own classroom and increase your comfort level teaching there.

2. Set clear expectations

Very young birders are

You no doubt have established expectations for student behavior in your classroom. It’s just as important to do this for the outdoors. Rather than a long list of rules, each starting with, “NO” (No talking, No running, No pushing, No interrupting), keep the list short and positive. “Stay on the trail. Remain with the group. Use materials responsibly.” Spell out the specific guidelines for the group when moving from one place to the next. This can be as simple as explaining that the group must travel as a sandwich. The leader is one slice of bread. Whoever is at the end of the line is designated as the other slice of bread. Everyone else is the yummy fixings that make up the sandwich. We must stay between the two slices of bread because we can’t have our sandwich falling apart!

3. Be a scientist

Third grade students making observations in the field.

When in the field, students should behave as the scientists they are, collecting data, making observations, whatever it is that you are expecting them to do, and doing so in a manner that is serious and focused on the task. It helps if students understand the purpose of their being outdoors. “You act differently when you’re outside for recess than you do when you’re outside for science.” Before you take the group outdoors, lead a discussion with students about specifically how it should look, feel, and sound differently.

4. Stealth mode

There is a time and place for quiet discussion and conversation between scientists working in the field. There is also a time for silence. When you are traveling along a path or through an area, it is far more likely that you’ll observe animals there if everyone is as quiet as mice, owls, or ants. You can call it moving in “stealth mode.” If animals hear a large group of people lumbering along, they will clear out, reducing the chance of seeing the creatures that live in that habitat. Students should understand when they hear you announce, “We are now in stealth mode,” this means silence is in order. Use your vision now instead of your voice.

5. Send them off, but bring them back

Sometimes, an outdoor trip involves giving children instruction and then sending them off to explore or complete an activity. To do this, you must be sure that: a.) you have their attention as you give instruction, b.) when it’s time, you can get everyone to come back to you quickly and easily, and c.) you know that everyone is back. When you send children off to find or do something, in order to bring them back to you quickly and efficiently, establish a “signal word.” As soon as they hear the word, students must stop what they are doing and return to you as quickly as it is safely possible. The word “magnet” works well. You can tell them that when they hear you say “magnet” they magically turn into pieces of metal, and you become a magnet; they will immediately become strongly “attracted” and have to return to you as quickly as they can. Finally, count your group regularly. You can pair children up to help them keep track of each other. “Do you see your buddy?” Make sure you know how many kids you are meant to have and always have that many. No more. No less.

6. Have what you need and know what you don’t


Before you go outside, think carefully about what you are going to do and what you want to accomplish, so you know exactly what materials you are going to want to bring. When it’s time to leave the building, be sure you have everything you need gathered together and ready to go. The less materials and equipment students have to carry in their hands the better. If there are items children must have in order to do an activity, carry a backpack or, if the terrain allows, pull a wagon containing that equipment. If you plan to make trips into the field on a regular basis and there are certain pieces of equipment you want children to have each time they are outdoors, you may want to find a local business that has cloth bags with their logo on them. Ask for a donation of enough bags for every student (or groups of two or three), being sure to explain your desire to take students outside for science, and perhaps the compelling reasons for doing so. If you’re successful in getting the donation, be sure to follow up with a written thank you for the business to post. Are you short on clipboards for kids to use outside? Make clipboards out of a piece of cardboard or old personal-sized white boards with binder clips at the top and a rubber band at the bottom to secure paper to the “board.” Be sure to take plenty of extra pencils in case of loss or breakage. What you are unlikely to have when in the field is access to a bathroom. If that is the case, it is important to remind everyone (no matter what their age) to use the restroom. Making a stop at the bathrooms on your way out of the building can eliminate (no pun intended) emergencies that can bring you in from the field before you’ve accomplished your goals.

7. Bring along technology

Apps like Merlin are a great tool to help with identification of birds and other species

If you have a smartphone, you can turn it into a terrific resource with the use of one or more of the handy apps (some of which are available for free) that can help when trying to identifying unknown species and/or answering puzzling questions. (Free apps to ID: birds – Merlin; trees – VTree. Check the app store for free or Lite versions of field guides specific to your state or area.) A camera is an excellent tool to use when documenting what students are doing, capturing candid photos of them at work, “collecting” samples of what was observed, documenting unknown species for identification later, and video recording their “process.”

8. Know it’s good not to know all the answers

Nature journals can help give focus to a trip outdoors.

Don’t let a concern about not knowing the name of every plant or animal species you might see or the answers to all the possible questions kids might ask keep you inside. On the contrary, embrace the teachable moments that exist if you don’t know everything. These are priceless! Not knowing everything gives you authentic opportunities to

model for kids exactly how to find the answers. If someone asks a question to which you don’t know the answer, tell the group, “That’s a terrific question. Let’s write it down to research later.” This demonstrates to students that you’re a learner right along with them.   With some thought and careful planning, you can successfully lead groups of children outdoors safely and provide a positive and enriching experience for them and for yourself. You will be able to bring nature alive for students, and give them the authentic experiences that will start them questioning and wondering about the world around them! Happy trails! Barbara

This blog is Part 1 of a series around engaging and teaching students outside. Click here for Part 2: Creating an Outdoor Classroom and here for Part 3: Citizen Science in Your Outdoor Classroom . You can also watch our video “Nature Walks: Five Steps to Success” below. 


Small Steps Equal Giant Outdoor Connections

The smallest outdoor experience can have far-reaching impacts. Many of us who have pursued careers in the outdoors can point to one (or several) childhood memories that gave us a passion for nature. It may be the simplest thing, finding a neat rock, a pretty flower, or an unusual bug, something that fascinates us and makes us want to learn more.

That is what the teachers highlighted in the article below inspired in their students. What began as a simple garden or rock identification field trip turned into a lifelong connection with the outdoors.

Incorporating outdoor education into the classroom can seem a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Small experiences in the school yard, a local park, or even bringing a little bit of nature indoors with you can turn into something so much greater later on. You never know what will happen.


How Small Steps Can Create Outdoors Experiences In Schools

Students at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School in Missouri conduct an abiotic water quality monitoring lab at Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country.  Students conducted chemical tests of dissolved oxygen levels, phosphates, nitrates and pH to determine water health.

Original article found here. Published on KQED News.

It started with a school garden at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School. The garden did so well that students built another garden. Then they added native plants, where seventh-grade students learned lessons in data collection as they counted pollinators. The students wanted more pollinators, so they added a beehive. The bees made honey, and the kids used their sweet surplus to learn about the economics of commodities, said science educator Scott McClintock, who helped build the MRH middle school science program.

But students didn’t stop there.

Next came an aquaponics lab in the basement, said McClintock, “so we had this giant tub that we were growing talapia in.”

The nitrates from the fish waste got recycled back into the garden.

All this took place at a public middle school near St. Louis that previously struggled academically. MRH Middle School has the same budget constraints that many school districts face, but they took their limited budget and directed funds toward outdoor learning. It’s an investment that pays off in the form of physically, mentally and socially healthier students. McClintock and other teachers saw students become more kind to each other outside.

Outdoor classrooms help children develop properly because they provide small risks that help kids gain confidence and good judgment, according to Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America. Even in urban school districts, teachers can create multidisciplinary outdoor classrooms.

“Mental health and social and emotional well-being are two key areas that we believe children benefit from in a green schoolyard,” said Danks.

Teachers can also look to city and school parks as a daily resource, according to Jean Turney, an education coordinator for St. Louis-based nonprofit Forest Park Forever. Turney, a former elementary school teacher, now trains other teachers in how to use parks as a classroom.

“It’s not a field trip, but it’s more of experience,” she said. The park can become a science lab, art studio or gymnasium.

Science teachers are usually the most interested in outdoor classrooms, but math and language arts lessons can be enhanced by using outdoor spaces, said Turney. Part of it is letting go of structured lessons, to let students set their own course, “trusting that kids really do figure it out.” 

This is Pat Wilborn owner of PortFish, an aquaponics farm in Port Washington, WI. My 6th grade students were there last week for an urban farming/sustainability expedition. The water these plants grown in are a part of a closed loop system that also grows fish. Basically the plants, bacteria in the filters, and fish form a self cleaning system where the waste products of one, become the nutrients for the other. Pat can grow year round using this system using less energy, resources, and space even in the harsh winters in Wisconsin.
McClintock took his current students at Chesterfield Day School to PortFish, an aquaponics farm in Port Washington, Wisconsin. Owner Pat Wilborn shows how plants and fish can be grown in a closed-loop system. According to McClintock, “Basically the plants, bacteria in the filters, and fish form a self-cleaning system where the waste products of one become the nutrients for the other. Pat can grow year-round using this system using less energy, resources and space even in the harsh winters in Wisconsin.” (Courtesy of Scott McClintock )



When Maplewood-Richmond Heights was redesigned to include a garden in its space, McClintock wanted to take gardening a step further by keeping a growing list of pollinator counts so students could track those populations over the years. And the garden went beyond just counting insects and harvesting plants — his students also had an entire unit on soil food webs and microorganisms.

These kinds of projects and activities require funding, so McClintock found partners from the community to cover the bills. Missouri’s Department of Conservation provided free teacher training that included conservation curriculum. Participating teachers also received funds for trips and gear.

“They offered some amazing opportunities for teachers in terms of curriculum they designed for teaching outdoors,” said McClintock.

But that wasn’t the only place he found help. Even though he had no funding for trips, he found organizations that would help cover transportation. And when he couldn’t secure funding for a bus, he tried to bring nature to his students. At a previous school in downtown St. Louis, McClintock used a supply grant to purchase a backyard pond kit. He built the pond in the classroom and filled it with fish and crayfish he bought from the bait store.

“That was on the fourth floor of a building downtown,” he said. “While I couldn’t take my kids out, I ended up bringing nature in and that was awesome and that lasted for years.”

Those fourth-graders he taught in downtown St. Louis are now high school seniors, three of whom e-mailed him recently and told him that they were inspired to go into science because of their time in his classroom.

“The work we did with them as fourth-graders had that impact,” McClintock said.

This was my sustainability class preparing the grounds for a 1200 sq ft rain garden installation. The students designed the garden, calculated the amount of soil, researched native prairie plants, prepared the seeds using a treatment called “cold stratification” to mimic Missouri winters, delivered their proposal for the superintendent/board, and then installed the garden. 100ft long and 20ft wide. In addition to the positive effects on the watershed, the rain garden also served as a pollinator garden and used in longitudinal data collection on pollinators in our campus gardens.
Middle school students prepare the grounds for a 1200-square-foot rain garden installation. According to McClintock, “The students designed the garden, calculated the amount of soil, researched native prairie plants, prepared the seeds using a treatment called “cold stratification” to mimic Missouri winters, delivered their proposal for the superintendent/board, and then installed the garden, 100 feet long and 20 feet wide. In addition to the positive effects on the watershed, the rain garden also served as a pollinator garden and was used in longitudinal data collection on pollinators in our campus gardens.” (Courtesy of Scott McClintock)



Children have powerful tools in the form of their imagination. Even if students are just sitting in a soccer field, they can use their imagination to transform it into another space, said Janet Staal, an environmental education consultant at Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“We’ll just pretend we’re kestrels and we have to survive by getting our food differently than humans,” said Staal, who works with teachers in Grand Rapids Public Schools. One of those schools is based out of Blandford Nature Center and has most lessons in outdoor spaces. But for other city schools, Staal serves as a liaison to give hesitant teachers a starting point to outdoor learning. It doesn’t have to be an additional burden for teachers, according to Staal. Just start with a simple question: “What are you currently doing this week in your plan and what could you potentially do outdoors?”

Some other starter tips:

*If reading aloud in class, take the book outside.
*Adopt a tree on your school grounds.
*Do a study of one square yard of grass. Have your students count different plants and insects in that space.
*Ask groundskeepers to leave a patch of grass uncut. Track what grows there.

Danielle Hughes, a science teacher at Dearborn STEM Academy in Boston, managed to get science lessons out of taking her students around the neighborhood to identify rocks, or even to the grocery store, where they offered a free nutrition class. And Hughes’ school partnered with the nearby Harbor Islands to take students out for a three-day expedition where they learned about the geologic processes that formed the island. With only a short amount of repeated exposure, students quickly grew comfortable with the outdoors. On the Harbor Islands trip, some students first complained, “then by the third day they don’t want to leave,” said Hughes.


Outdoor learning does take commitment and should become part of the daily routine.

“If an activity can be done outside, why not?” said Hughes.

Passionate teachers like Hughes are important, but part of the work of Green Schoolyards is to change the institutional requirements so outdoor learning is the norm.

“What we have in the form of our school grounds is public land that is our most used public parks and we haven’t treated them that way,” said Danks.

Greening asphalt schoolyards can help with stormwater infiltration and climate change, so those initiatives should qualify for funds used in climate mitigation.

“A green schoolyard is an ecosystem of opportunities,” said Danks. 

These places can be resources to the community after school hours as well, she added. But city planners often leave these spaces out off their maps.

Green Schoolyards provides a free guides with more than 150 examples of what teachers can do on their own playgrounds, no matter the size.

“It is something you can change incrementally over time and make better and it’s something that kids can experience every day, right outside the door, if you do it,” said Danks.

Rather than being disempowered about large-scale environmental problems, said Danks, this is something where students can look out at their asphalt schoolyard and ask: How can you make this better?

“That small-scale positive interaction can give them confidence to do bigger things when their capabilities grow,” she added. “We’re looking to empower children to be stewards of their place, of their community.”

Outdoor Classroom Day!


Have you ever heard of Outdoor Classroom Day?

We hadn’t until recently, but we’re glad this program is around. More and more programs are popping up to get classrooms outside, this one just happens to be global. An international day dedicated to outdoor classes. How cool is that? Plus, this day falls in autumn, a great time of year in Michigan to get outside.

From the Outdoor Classroom Day About page:

“Outdoor Classroom Day is a GLOBAL campaign to celebrate and inspire outdoor learning and play! Why? Simply because although teachers and parents know that spending time outdoors is important, sometimes it is squeezed out of the school day by all the other competing demands.

Anyone who has seen the effect of taking children outdoors to learn and play knows how powerful such experiences can be. Play is essential for children’s healthy development, which means it’s an essential part of every day. Learning outdoors, or ‘learning by doing,’ creates lasting memories, helps build a greater awareness of the environment, provides more opportunities to think independently, and gets children feeling challenged and excited by learning.”

outdoor-classroom-dayThe official Outdoor Classroom Day website has tons of resources, activities, and lesson plans to help you out. You can even get your school listed on a global map showing everyone who is participating.

Anyone can participate, formal school or not. So mark your calendars for Thursday, October 6 and get your kids outside!

Michigan Outdoor Preschool Catches National Attention

Outdoor schools. I have seen many articles about these popping up all over the world recently. The concept is actually quite simple; have lessons outside, rain or shine. And it is an educational method that is rapidly gaining popularity, especially in early education settings like preschool.

One nature preschool in Michigan was actually included in an article by the New York Times in December 2015 which also included similar schools in Washington, California, and Massachusetts. The Chippewa Nature Center in Midland has held an outdoor nature preschool since 2007. Their goal? According to their website, the program “fuses early childhood education with environmental education to develop a child’s lifelong connection to the natural world.” Sounds pretty great to us.

Here is a full article which focuses on the Chippewa Nature Center’s program from the Midland Daily News so you can learn more about them.

Local nature preschool catches national attention

JESSICA HAYNES, Midland Daily News

Original article here

Jan 1, 2016

chippewa nc

Midland’s Chippewa Nature Center is getting some nationwide attention in an article by The New York Times headlined “Preschool Without Walls.”

The article discusses the recent popularity of early education classes being held outside and in nature and references Chippewa Nature Center’s nature preschool three times.

The Times says that the trend of nature preschools is growing, up from 20 schools in 2008 to 92 schools in 2013 “that deliberately put nature at the heart of their programs, and where children spend a significant portion of each day outside.”

Read the article here:

The Chippewa Nature Center’s preschool program started in 2007 and now operates from the Margaret Ann Riecker Nature Preschool Center, built in 2009. According to the center’s website, the program “fuses early childhood education with environmental education to develop a child’s lifelong connection to the natural world.”

In the Times article talks about some programs like the Chippewa Nature Center that work with surrounding school districts and mentions its partnership with the Bullock Creek School District.

The Daily News reported this summer the district received a $496,000 grant from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Family Foundation to expand the district’s nature-based kindergarten program into first grade at Floyd Elementary. Read more here:

Dick Touvell, executive director of the Chippewa Nature Center, said inclusion in the Times article was flattering but not surprising.

“From the beginning of CNC’s Nature Preschool eight years ago, parent and community feedback has been outstanding, and as a result, the program has seen remarkable growth,” Touvell told the Daily News.

That growth can be linked to Rachel Larimore, the center’s director for education, who worked to establish the pilot program and wrote a book about the process to inspire others to think about nature. Touvell said the center is proud its program, under Larimore’s leadership, has played a role in the rising popularity of such programs.

“In my opinion, the establishment of CNC’s Nature Preschool has been quite a success story that has impacted many families throughout the area and helped foster the growth of other programs throughout the country,” Touvell said.

Chippewa Nature Center is located on 400 S. Badour Road in Midland, and features 15 miles of trails on over 1,200 acres and a visitor center with exhibits, a wildlife viewing area and classrooms used for lectures and workshops to get residents in touch with nature.


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,, 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.


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.


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.”

Global Tree Banding Project

Here is a unique opportunity to get your class involved in global environmental issues.


The Smithsonian Institute presents…The Tree Banding Project


The Smithsonian Institution’s Tree Banding Project, a citizen science program that contributes to research about tree biomass tracks how trees respond to climate.  Citizen science programs involve students and teachers like you contributing to ongoing scientific work.  Students around the globe will monitor the rate at which their local trees grow and learn how that rate corresponds to Smithsonian research as well as comparing their work to other students world-wide.  Once involved, you will help to create the first global observatory of how trees respond to climate! As part of this program, you will be contributing vital information to an important ecological study.

By signing up you will receive a kit that includes everything that you will need to get started. After you get your kit, your class will need to:

  • Pick ten trees in your schoolyard for study
  • Prepare and install the dendrometer (tree) bands
  • Allow four weeks for the bands to settle

When the trees are ready, you will use the digital calipers in your kit to measure the gap in the bands.  This will establish a baseline for growth.  At the minimum, we would like two measurements in the spring and two in the fall to help us monitor the growing season.  You may, however, take as many measurements as you like.  The more data we get the better!

The number of kits available are limited – so complete your application soon.  Schools selected to participate will be based on location and when you apply.  Not all schools can be selected.  There are currently no participating schools in DE, ND, ID, AK, NM, MI, AL, SC, NE, and MN so these states are priorities.

If you are interested in participating Sign up today!