Halton Hills Christian School’s (HHCS) outdoor classroom is a good spot to be still and ponder creation’s beauty. Leafy shrubs surround a circle of wood chips and a cheerful sign with the words “Welcome to our Natural Habitat Classroom” stands above a cluster of six tree trunk benches.
Thanks to a generous donation from the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation, students at HHCS had the opportunity to build a special outdoor space for learning last year. The project turned out to be a school wide effort, with teachers, community volunteers and over forty students working hard to restore a forested woodlot behind the HHCS soccer field.
This isn’t the first time that students at the school have traded in their pencils for shovels. For the last six years Brooke Andrews and her grade 5 students have made it their mission to create a walkable trail through the school’s tree line—lugging wood chips and spreading them on the ground where a path used to exist.
When funds for an outdoor classroom became available in 2013, Andrews felt like they could continue what they’d been (quite happily) trudging along with for several years. Her students approached the project with eagerness, even when that meant hauling buckets of water, pruning invasive weeds and clearing brush. And, although it was a labour intensive project, they continually assured her that working outside was fun.
“The kids, they love it. That’s why we continue the outdoor education program,” says Andrews. “There are so many kids where ‘school is school’ and they’ll do it. But you put a shovel in their hands and it’s yeah! This is what I love doing.”
Other companies within the Halton community offered to help out too. Berny Menken, an arborist from Diamond Tree Care, provided four loads of wood chips for the Natural Habitat Classroom. He also built benches using trees that fell during last winter’s ice storm. One of those trees boasted a four foot diameter trunk, which he has since turned into a large teaching table.
Today, the Natural Habitat Classroom is more than just a peaceful clearing in the woods. It’s a very workable space, says Andrews. Last year it proved to be an ideal location for the school’s reading buddies program and a good spot for students to do their math work.
As a learning environment, it’s inspired teachers to create fun, nature focused lessons. “We have a grade 3 teacher who developed a PBL unit that will incorporate the trees that we have out in that space,” says Andrews. And, last spring grade 5 students helped plant over eighty native shrubs and twenty deciduous trees. When plants looked like they were about to perish, several classes helped create a temporary hot spring in an effort to rescue them.
With so much energy going towards empowering the students to build their new, outdoor classroom, Andrews suspects that teachers have only scratched the surface of the learning space’s potential. “This is the first year that we have the actual teaching space available,” she says. “We have yet to see how teachers will incorporate it into the curriculum.”
This year, grade 4/5 students will focus their energies on maintaining the space, which could involve a variety of tasks, like clearing away vines that threaten the growth of small shrubs and watering plants. As leaves turn from green to red and temperatures drop, they’ll become well attuned to the processes of change in nature.
Frequent trips to this specific corner of the HHCS property will also provide them with something that their smart phones and ipads can’t—an intimate knowledge of place. According to a 2014 report published by Forest and Nature School in Canada, repeated access to the same natural space is what typically fosters “a desire and sense of responsibility for care taking and protection” in children. There are other good reasons for schools to create their own Natural Habitat Classrooms. Time spent in nature has been proven to reduce stress, improve patience and increase a child’s capacity for attention.
As the school year progresses at HHCS, I suspect that such learning advantages will yield more than just good grades—offering students with rich opportunities to experience wonder and take delight in the beautifully alive and intricately designed creation around them.