Outdoor Space Provides Many Learning Opportunities

Positioning rose bushOne team, one dream. That’s the vision of Pride Avenue Elementary School in Madisonville, Kentucky. Our vision helps create a school climate that is positive, family-oriented, and geared toward exploration and hands-on learning.

Our new “Courtyard of Curiosity” supports that vision. Thanks to my PLT training, we have incorporated PLT activities into the school. Thanks to a PLT GreenWorks grant, we are on our way to creating an inviting outdoor space between an existing and new wing of the school.

 

Making memories outdoors

When I Pride Avenue Elementary myself, we sometimes went out in the woods behind the school, which had a small amphitheater. I remembered my own experiences out there so well and have many memories of being outdoors.

Now as a teacher, we began to talk about building an outdoor learning area. I knew it would be a great project for the Pride Avenue kids. Unlike the area from my childhood, however, we decided the outdoor space should be easily accessible from the school building. Students and teachers can access the new courtyard from two different parts of the school.

 

Partnerships make the outdoor space more inviting and sustainable

Composting a pumpkinThrough a partnership with Green Giant Landscaping and employees from General Electric, students planned, built, and now maintain our new area. Fifth graders also developed a butterfly garden in conjunction with a Chrysalis project. They released butterflies into the garden and have observed many butterflies that lingered with us.

Fourth- and fifth-graders set up a composting station—composting pumpkins was also a real hit.

A local Girl Scout troop approached us to plant rose bushes in one corner of the area. They earned their badges, and we have a beautiful spot to enjoy. We plan to have an outdoor plaque installed in this area to feature the girls by name from the troop that completed it.

Various trees and bushes, native as well as nonnative to Kentucky, are spread throughout the courtyard. Benches will be installed near these areas to create little sanctuaries for reading and reflection.

 

Change didn’t happen overnight

Things got off to a slower start than we anticipated, partly due to delays with school construction going on simultaneously.

It turned out the adjoining area needed a better drainage system, which our board office provided, through an in-kind $20,000 expense. It took a while to troubleshoot and solve the problem. But the upside is that the plants and trees in the Courtyard will fare much better with improved drainage.

Student volunteers for initial plantingFunding from various sources provided us much-needed resources to complete this project. A PLT GreenWorks grant provided a good portion of our funding. We also received a $2,000 grant from the Hopkins County Education Foundation.

We also won contests run by the Sonic Corporation (Limeades for Learning-$800 in products) and Big Lots (Lots2Give-$2,500 grant) to secure additional funding and supplies.  These contests were based on online voting. With a little organization, these kinds of opportunities can pay off. We mobilized the school community to vote through reminders on school menus and other information that went home in backpacks and flyers distributed to parents during afternoon pick-up time. It worked!

 

Lessons along the way

Although our outdoor space is still a work in progress, we have already learned some valuable lessons:

 

Patience and determination are essential

We were hoping to start planting in 2009, but it took until April of 2011 to really get things rolling. Some circumstances were out of our control—we just had to accept that. But we didn’t give up the project either! We continued to work with the school district’s Facilities office to keep our dream alive. Patience and determination paid off.

 

Help can come from unexpected places

We received funding from several sources and volunteers from local employers also helped create the new space.

Sometimes, the help we received came from an unexpected place. For example, the plant leader for GE is the father of a student who attends Pride. He brought about 20 volunteers with him on a Saturday to landscape the area. This initial landscaping effort only took five to six hours utilizing an eager group of volunteers versus days with only a handful of our school stakeholders. Thank goodness we all had team spirit and wanted to give back to students in our community.

 

The outdoor space can provide many kinds of learning opportunities

Girl Scouts troop after plantingWe have many new ideas for the new space that will provide different learning opportunities for the students.

We’d like to continue developing the space by:

  • Creating more habitats for students to observe living creatures in natural places, such as a pond,
  • Showing how we can capture energy from the sun with a solar-powered water pump in the pond and solar-powered birdbaths,
  • Installing a spider web frame so we can examine the formation of webs up close while respecting wildlife, and
  • Installing a plant cam to capture photos over time to assemble into a video that will show the full life cycle of growth.

So far, older students have spent the most time on activities in the Courtyard. We are hoping they can serve as mentors to younger students, a relationship that will benefit both groups. It’s been a growing adventure creating our “Courtyard of Curiosity,” and we are definitely cultivating minds here at Pride through its creation!

Kelly Gates

Kelly Gates

Kelly Gates teaches 5th grade at Pride Avenue Elementary School in Madisonville, Kentucky.

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