“Remember your roots,” reads a tile placed along a gravel path behind Hough Elementary School. “Enjoy the view,” says another. Now, thanks to a community effort that transformed a section of the schoolyard into an outdoor learning lab, Hough students can do the former without having to journey far for the latter.
The space, the first of three planned for Hough Elementary, is the vision of Jane Tesner Kleiner, a landscape architect, parent of a Hough third-grader, and founder of the school’s Green Team. Working with Tesner Kleiner, more than 120 Green Team students gave up their lunch recess every three weeks for a year to plan the trio of outdoor classrooms, which they dubbed Hough’s “Backyard Field Trip.”
“The kids said, ‘There’s so much to learn here at Hough. Let’s go outside,’” recalled Tesner Kleiner.
Phase one was the outdoor learning lab. The team’s other ideas include a sensory garden featuring tactile plants for special-needs students; tree house with a low ground clearance; and vegetable garden, located near the tree house, that connects curriculum with real examples of plant lifecycles and healthy foods.
Should funding be secured, “the project will bring the environment and urban abundance to the kids,” said Hough Principal Eva Unger.
On Oct. 5, 2013, the learning lab went from concept to reality with the help of approximately 80 volunteers, including Vancouver Public Schools students; parents; community members; and members of the American Institute of Architects’ Vancouver and Portland chapters, Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI), and Cascadia Green Building Council Emerging Professionals.
The work was performed in conjunction with the Green Apple Day of Service, an international movement to transform schools through local service projects. “We want to help kids connect with nature and sustainability,” said volunteer Katrina Shum Miller of CEFPI and the Cascadia Green Building Council. “Our passion is helping schools become more green.”
In addition to the tiles, created by Mina Milligan’s fifth-grade class from the poem “Advice from a Tree,” the space features tiles with drawings and information about native trees of Washington, a 10-by-12-foot stage, bench seating for 30 students, and circular wooden platforms. In true community fashion, the bulk of the materials and services were donated; grants and fundraisers covered the additional expenses.
The outdoor learning lab is intended to be a space where students can meet, write, read, present, and reflect.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity for students to spend quality outdoor time at their own school,” said parent volunteer Katie Simon. “The fact that they’re helping build it gives them a sense of pride.”
For the students, the reasons for the outdoor learning lab were simple: “Kids like to play outdoors and be outdoors,” explained Hough student Mae Carse as she donned boots to begin shoveling mulch.
And on the bright Saturday morning of construction, that’s exactly what they got to do. “I thought it would be fun,” Hough student Alex Hinson said of his reason for volunteering.
Added another volunteer with a grin, “It doesn’t feel like work at all. It just feels like hanging out!”