Into the woods: outdoor classroom an invaluable resource at Riverton ElementaryJul 01, 2022 09:39AM ● By Jet Burnham
By Jet Burnham | [email protected]
Riverton Elementary’s most popular classroom doesn’t have any windows, desks or electrical outlets. Instead it has picnic tables, singing birds, and trees that offer the perfect reading spot. It is an outdoor classroom, separated from the playground and field by a border of mature trees and shrubs.
“It's really such a cool space,” Riverton Elementary PTA President Katie Fuller said. “We're, as far as I know, the only school in Utah to have a space like this where it's mature trees.”
The outdoor classroom, originally called the “learning grove,” was created in 1995 by members of the school community council, the school principal and community members. They designed the space, with native trees and plants and an irrigation system, and, with the support of community and staff members, built and maintained it. Over the years, Scout troops and church groups have helped care for and make improvements to the grove. They hung bird feeders, built planter boxes and created signs to identify plants and trees. Eventually, the school district took over the upkeep, but they were unable to keep up with the growth.
The space eventually became overgrown and neglected.
In 2019, Dan Larsen attended a school event with his child and saw that the outdoor classroom needed to be cleaned up. He contacted Fuller, the PTA president, who happens to be his sister.
“My brother brought the space to my attention,” Fuller said. “He is a Riverton Elementary alumni and helped plant the space as a student in the first years there.”
So, in 2019, the PTA began revitalizing the space for its 25th anniversary. The community, again, lent their support for the project. Mike Maret, who was an integral part of the original classroom’s development, was invaluable during the restoration project, because of his knowledge of, and passion for, the space. PTA members Jeran and Rachael Farley used their connections with the Division of Urban Forestry and Tree Utah to secure grant money, outdoor classroom supplies, and an additional ten trees (which were planted by students in the spring of 2021).
Materials, labor, funds and expertise were also donated by Lowe's, Walmart, Timber Ridge Tree Service and Jordan School District.
“We've also had about 150 community volunteers help with the various cleanup efforts since 2019,” Fuller said.
Principal Joel Pullen said the outdoor classroom represents the beneficial relationship between the community and the school.
“It started out as a collaborative effort between community and school,” Pullen said. “And now, we're back to this collaborative effort of community and school.”
The restoration efforts were in full swing when the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, and when school resumed in the fall of 2021, the classroom was ready to meet the high demand for its use.
“During those critical times in the pandemic, it became a critical space,” Pullen said.
It became a space where students could social distance and take off their masks. It became a space where students could spread out to explore and learn, or find a quiet nook in which to read. It became a space where teachers could take a break or grade papers in isolation.
"I love the outdoor classroom,” said Annabelle Fuller, who just completed fifth grade. “It's so peaceful, and it makes me happy. My classes have read stories, had scavenger hunts, and looked for leaves to draw in the outdoor classroom. We've even eaten lunch together as a class in the outdoor classroom."
Larsen’s daughter, Marion, said her third grade class used it for a change of scenery. Instead of working math problems inside, they would sit in the outdoor classroom, solving them on whiteboards, while enjoying nature.
The outdoor space provides limitless learning opportunities. When Rachael Farley was a teacher at Riverton Elementary, she put together lesson plans for each grade which tie-in to the outdoor classroom.
“She gave those to teachers so they have a starting point to more effectively use the space,” Pullen said. A shed was built adjacent to the classroom this year to store supplies Farley helped get donated—magnifying glasses for exploring, tools for measuring, clipboards for note-taking, and buckets for temporary student seating.
While the classroom is near the playground, Pullen said the trees block out most of the noise. Students are quiet while in the outdoor classroom.
“They respect this place,” he said. “You don't see running and jumping on the tables. They don't treat it like a playground. When they come in, it's a space to get away. That's how it was used during the pandemic.”
The outdoor classroom was so popular with students and teachers wanting a break from masks, especially during the 2020-21 school year, Pullen identified twenty additional areas on the school property—spots of grass in the shadow of the building and under trees—to serve as alternative classrooms.
“We did that so that we could get more kids out of the building, in fresh air, knowing that calms and decreases anxiety,” Pullen said. He said a change of scenery and other ‘brain breaks’ outdoors are beneficial for kids.
Fuller said the outdoor classroom has become a model for other schools who want to develop similar spaces.
At a school event in May, the PTA celebrated the outdoor classroom and those who helped make it possible, including the original principal, Bonnie Dahl, original community council members, and community contributors like Mike Marett and Jeran and Rachael Farley. Their names will be listed on a plaque on the shed.