New Outdoor Classroom is a breath of fresh air

Sister Mary Angelus Outdoor Classroom at St. Peter School a valuable addition to the learning experience

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WARWICK — On the grounds of St. Peter School, beneath the shade of the mulberry and oak trees, a new engaging outdoor learning environment sits on the hill. The Sister Mary Angelus Outdoor Classroom is set to offer students a unique educational experience that will nurture the whole child in a natural setting.
After months of planning, including discussions with St. Peter School administrators,educators and parents, the Outdoor Classroom, named for beloved former principal Sister Mary Angelus, RSM, is ready for the 2019-2020 school year. Father Roger Gagne, pastor of the parish, has offered the quiet, shaded space near the rectory, one perfect for educational reflection.
Through his involvement volunteering in the classroom for Science Olympiad and taking part in school field trips, parent and volunteer Jonathan Alvarez identified the interest in having both educators and students get outside.
“I asked myself, ‘What makes an outside adventure so unique and can we embrace the concept of escaping more readily?’”
Alvarez described the variety of elements that children would experience in the Outdoor Classroom. The youngest students will find the space to be a fun destination where meals can be eaten, birthdays celebrated and curriculum facilitated with abundant plants, bugs and birds. Older students will find it suits independent study and STEAM curriculum development. The school already runs outdoor greenhouse programming with harvests that benefit the food pantry and the new classroom is an extension of that interest.
Last March, Alvarez sent out a proposal to teachers outlining the theory of an Outdoor Classroom. Over the summer, more than $5,000 of donations came in through a GoFundMe page set up by Alvarez. A new $1,000 goal will assist the preschool to build out additional outdoor educational space for their area on campus. Together with the two currently funded projects, St. Peter School, as well as parish faith formation and Scout programs, will have more room to get outside at every opportunity.
“The educator support was overwhelming, many with hugs and our first donations to facilitate development. When launching the GoFundMe campaign I borrowed concepts from other fundraisers that included donor recognitions and nearly daily updates to keep our school community up to date with where the money was going. That gave the community a sense of ownership and accountability that I could build out the project in two months.”
On a warm morning this summer, first grade teacher Anne Robinson sat outside at a picnic table where she already enjoys working with summer school students. When Robinson first heard about the Outdoor Classroom proposal, her first thought was: “Bring it on.”
“The Outdoor Classroom is right up my alley. I would be in my element. It’s proven that children are happier when they spend time in nature and studies have shown that test scores go up when students experience being outdoors. Kids are natural movers. This will give them an opportunity to get up, walk around, listen to the sounds of nature and observe.”
Robinson added that not only does this kind of space foster hands-on learning experiences, but it helps build stewardship skills for the environment.
“It will help them to be environmentally aware. We can show them at their young age that they play a role in sustaining that environment. It’s beautiful that we can teach them to be stewards of God’s earth so early.”
According to the Outdoor Classroom Project, an initiative to the Child Educational Center, “Physical play is absolutely vital to children’s brain development; offering children stimulating outdoor environments and time to play freely are two of the best ways to ensure that children have the opportunity to develop to their full potential. Outdoor Classroom evolves from the real needs of children, offers activities that are personally meaningful to them, and fully embraces developmentally appropriate practices in early care.”
Katie Kelliher, whose children Lily and Ashley attend St. Peter School, appreciates that the curriculum does not focus solely on electronics as a means of learning, and hopes that this classroom will continue that with more hands-on activities outside.
“My daughters are looking forward to getting out in the fresh air for their reading and classroom times and are excited to be learning in the space. I’m proud to be part of a community that was excited to donate money and time to improve their children’s education. I applaud the administration for letting him [Alvarez] take the reins and appreciate their willingness to evolve and incorporate new learning methods into the curriculum.”
Throughout the country, the focus on electronics in the classroom has continued to be a priority, but Alvarez shared that the Outdoor Classroom will supplement current school technology and serve as a valuable addition to the learning experience.
“Our Outdoor Classroom is simply a landing pad for our fantastic educators and brilliant students,” he said. “Designed to serve all ages, with field guides, binoculars and mobile rechargeable digital-LCD microscopes which are entirely being funded by our project donors, the project is meant to complement existing technology in the standard classroom.
“However a quiet area for educational reflection and study is possibly one of the biggest merits of an outdoor classroom. With the wind blowing through the oaks and mulberries, our children may escape the traditional classroom and look up and reflect on a passage in their books while sitting in our established campus gardens.”
The Sister Mary Angelus Outdoor Classroom is an extension of the already diverse educational experience at St. Peter School.
Educators can now plan for more outdoor curriculum opportunities throughout the year knowing that an on-site space is readily available.
“Together with Father, the educators and administrators, it is our Parents Guild and all those who serve on committees throughout the year who develop a beautiful sense of community that benefits our youth,” said Alvarez. “We are blessed to have a community that praises and complements every aspect of a Catholic School education.”
To learn more about the Outdoor Classroom at St. Peter School, or to donate, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/SPSOutdoorClassroom.
For those looking to begin a conversation about Outdoor Classroom at their school, please reach out to Jonathan Alvarez at jonathand.alvarez@gmail.com.