The look of classrooms and learning environments has significantly changed throughout the years. The latest classroom at Amery’s Lien Elementary has the sun shining upon the students and the breeze blowing through their hair.
Lien’s Outdoor Classroom Project was initiated a little over a year ago after a mini grant was given. What started as some outdoor green space and furniture snowballed from there with the help of the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) committee.
Lisa Bensen, coordinator for the PBIS Tier One team at Lien Elementary said, “the health benefits green spaces provide is one of the main reasons for including this project in our 2019-2020 goals. Creating, improving, and maintaining a positive school climate is part of our overall mission. We hope to see additional benefits by incorporating “green” spaces that are calming and part of a healthy sensory diet as well as designated areas for peacemaking and problem-solving.”
Debbie Elmer-Christopherson, local artist, committee member and parent volunteer, provided support to the group and a vision. “I am really excited about what transpired as this whole thing came together with volunteers from our community,” said Elmer-Christopherson. She said the space isn't just about being "fun" or "pretty.” There is a tremendous amount of research about how nature impacts learning, regulates the body and enhances creativity.
She said, “We have recognized the current literature regarding the many health benefits of being outdoors and connecting with nature. Today, children are spending a significant amount of time on technology, which puts them indoors promoting a sedentary lifestyle. Many children are also overscheduled and anxiety rates have increased. Fortunately, there are things that can help and research shows stress levels fall within minutes of being outside. By incorporating the outdoors with their learning, we can bring these benefits of health to our students as well as nurture their interaction and imagination in the natural world.”
When applying for the original grant it was relayed that the Mission of the School District of Amery is to foster academic excellence, life-long learning and citizenship.
The plan is for the outdoor classroom to be utilized by elementary grades (4K-3) as an extension of the classroom and curriculum. The space being furnished with natural materials, support active learners with sensory needs. The space supports hands-on learning, STEAM activities, nature appreciation and integration and a calming environment.
The area includes a stump stomp where students can count, jump, skip and play from stump to stump; a mud kitchen for sensory play; a building zone where students can use blocks to create new structures; an open area for movement breaks as well as yoga and group building activities; a messy art area for painting and drawing while being surrounded by nature; as well as benches and work spaces.
The area can be used for literacy, math, science, and social studies as an extension of the classroom. Any standard that is practiced in the classroom, can be practiced in our outdoor classroom and may include planning and conducting investigation, relationships of people and groups, and social interactions.
For the students who are fortunate to participate, it will have a lasting impact on their educational experience and environment. At Lien Elementary School, they are able to reach over 400 students every year, which is a large percentage of the district population. The outdoor classroom will be available to the community as well, through Club House or after school hours.
A nationally recognized garden designer and author has taken interest in the Outdoor Classroom venture and contributed some seeds, enthusiastic encouragement and professional input to the project.
Because this project is focused on improving the lives of students with the future in mind, it leaves a legacy for the school and community. The driving forces behind the project feel leaving a legacy builds a strong community.
Amery’s strong community has offered an outpouring of support on the project. Businesses and individuals have donated a tremendous amount of time and materials to the project. Volunteer Tyler Kuhl from Kuhl’s Acres said, “This is the kind of space I needed as a kid.”
Elmer-Christopherson said, “I love that our community has historically been one whose livelihood and enjoyment has revolved around the outdoors. The creation of the Lien Elementary Outdoor Classroom really ties in to that legacy and current educational research. To me, it is very exciting that Amery is right on the forefront of utilizing educational research with this classroom. Sensory integration has benefited my son tremendously, and I am very convinced it can benefit all students.”