Outdoor classrooms give down-to-earth experience

Friday, May 30, 2003

Barefoot with hands caked in mud, seventh-grader Emily Essner spent her first day of summer school at Scott City Middle School digging up dirt in a courtyard overgrown with weeds and littered with trash.

"It's fun. There's no homework, and it's going to be neat when we're finished," Essner said. "But I don't like touching the worms."

Essner is part of a group of students and teachers who have tackled the job of turning an unused courtyard, located between the middle and high schools, into an outdoor classroom with native plants, a 165-gallon fish pond and a hummingbird garden.

Work on the project began Thursday morning. Unfamiliar with the finer points of using garden tools, middle schoolers awkwardly wielded shovels and hoes to dig a trench that will eventually be a brick walkway. There were the occasional squeals of disgust as students unearthed worms and beetles.

"This is a new experience for some of the kids," teacher Leanne Grant said. "I had some who picked up the hoe and didn't know what to do with it."

Twenty-four middle school students volunteered for the project as part of the school's summer school program.

The project was made possible through community donations and a $2,500 grant provided through the Missouri Conservation Department.

"Kids have an enormous interest in what's going on outdoors, and you can harness that interest to teach and create an appreciation for nature," said A.J. Hendershott, outreach and education supervisor for the Missouri Conversation Department's southeast regional office.

Grant approval

Around 70 Missouri schools applied for the outdoor classroom grant this year, but only 43, including the Scott City and Oak Ridge school districts, received funding.

Oak Ridge will use their $2,500 in grant money to extend an existing outdoor classroom that was relocated because of new building construction.

Elementary principal Dr. Gerald Landewee said the school has plans to create butterfly and hummingbird gardens and a state map garden with native grasses in the shape of Missouri.

The existing classroom includes a sundial, weather station and compost area.

"It's one thing to read about something in a book, but this will allow students to see things first hand," Landewee said. "It's a very different experience."

School officials say teachers and students plan to begin work on the project this summer, and they're also asking for community volunteers to help build a walking trail through the outdoor classroom in conjunction with a state grant the Cape Girardeau County Health Department received.

In Scott City, students will make bird houses, gazing balls, stepping stones and flower pots for the classroom on rainy days when they can't work outside.

"I think they'll get to see things for how they really are, instead of in a textbook," said parent Sandi Roberts, whose daughter will be in seventh grade next year at Scott City. "It should be exciting."

The 226-by-39 foot courtyard is surrounded by four brick walls with doors at the north and south and windows on each wall. One corner of the yard has been designated for benches and a podium.

Preliminary renovation plans show four ornamental trees such as dogwood and red bud, bird baths, sod areas for reading and a curving brick walkway connecting the north and south entries. Flowers native to Missouri, such as black-eyed Susans, wisteria and wild bergamot, will also be part of the classroom.

With blue jeans rolled up over her knees and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, 12-year-old Jessica Stice focused on removing the top layer of soil along the walkway.

"I didn't know it would be this much work," Stice said. "But it will be worth it. It's better than being cooped up inside all day."


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