By Alison Poe
Pictured left, Seth Boyden’s outdoor classroom (partial view left, with back of chalkboard), performance circle (foreground), art nook with mist sprayer, and habitat garden.
After two decades of gradually transforming its back yard into a vibrant Outdoor Learning Center, Seth Boyden Elementary is inaugurating the final and most highly anticipated phase of the project: an open-air classroom, bordered by an art nook, a performance area, and a large habitat garden.
The grand opening ceremony will take place on Friday, September 16 at 9 a.m. Among the special guests will be Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, and District Superintendent John Ramos. The public is warmly invited to attend the event, and to enjoy the Outdoor Learning Center – the OLC – whenever school is not in session.
A Long-Term Project
Seth Boyden’s rear schoolyard was a patchy dustbowl until the mid-1990s, when parent Lorraine Gibbons spearheaded the creation of Strawberry Fields, a sprawling raised-bed vegetable garden tended by the students. Gibbons then enlisted the Natural Learning Initiative of North Carolina State University to draw up plans for a complete overhaul of the yard. Relying on these plans, the school installed a playground, an oval track, and parcourse equipment. In a second phase, after a revision of the plans in 2010, two more large play structures went up.
Then the project stalled. Estimates for building the outdoor classroom – planned as a roofed pavilion by architect Huzefa Irfani, a Seth Boyden parent – far exceeded the available funds. Former PTA president Tia Swanson recalls a sense of discouragement. “There were three rounds of bids from contractors, but nothing was affordable,” she says.
Creating The Classroom
The breakthrough came last year from Seth Boyden parent Matthias Ebinger, a specialist in construction management. Ebinger took the reins of the PTA’s OLC Committee in June 2015, bringing Swanson aboard as co-chair. “I know that almost every project runs into [a shortage of funds],” he explains, “and that there is always a way out. In this case, it was the landscape architect William Scerbo who solved the problem.” Ebinger and Scerbo realized that the classroom didn’t have to be a built structure – it could be open to the sky. Scerbo, whose firm is in South Orange, swiftly formulated a new design, preserving as much of Irfani’s original concept as possible but translating it into a landscaped environment.
This spring, local businesses and some 200 community members came together to enact the new vision. Evergreen Landscaping of Butler did the heavy construction work, and Glenn’s Landscaping of Maplewood donated a day of its crew and equipment to transport topsoil and plant more than 30 trees. Volunteers did everything else, from planting and mulching to putting up birdhouses and running irrigation lines. The OLC committee’s public relations chair, Kevin Kraft, put out calls on Facebook for Seth Boyden families and other supporters to join evening and weekend work sessions. Apple and Google provided volunteers as well. At these work events, the schoolyard swarmed with adults and children happily pushing wheelbarrows and digging in the dirt. “It was an amazing way to get to know other Seth Boyden parents better,” Kraft says.
By the time the school year ended, the classroom was close enough to being finished that the PTA was able to hold an event there to honor retiring principal Mark Quiles, under whose ten-year leadership so much of the OLC had taken shape.
Pictured left, OLC co-chair Tia Swanson (center) and other volunteers planting shrubs in the habitat garden at a work session this spring.
Pictured right, OLC PR officer Kevin Kraft (left) and other volunteers at a work session this spring.
Support from Many Sources
The modest budget for the project came from numerous PTA fundraisers and an array of grants. Sustainable Jersey, a nonprofit that supports environmentally friendly programs in New Jersey schools and communities, awarded the project $10,000 in 2015. Other grants and in-kind donations came from the Maplewood and South Orange Open Space Trust Funds, the Rotary Club, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Target. Maplewood HVAC company Woolley Home Solutions contributed funds toward a large in-ground sundial.
Seth Boyden PTA’s Outdoor Learning Center Committee was instrumental in steering the project to completion. In addition to co-chairs Ebinger and Swanson and PR officer Kraft, the committee included Caryn Emmons, who managed the finances; Lizete Monteiro, who planned fundraising events; David Anstatt, who helped to manage construction; and Elizabeth Ebinger, who oversaw logistics.
Paved Circles and a Habitat Garden
The fruit of all of this fundraising and labor is a complex of hardscaped and natural elements. The centerpiece, the outdoor classroom, is a large stone-paved circle furnished with tables, stools, protective umbrellas, and a gigantic chalkboard on wooden posts. (The chalkboard is so heavy that half a dozen men were needed to lift it.) An apron of bricks with inscriptions from donors leads to two smaller circles: an art nook, which children are free to decorate with sidewalk chalk; and a miniature theater-in-the-round, equipped with a ring of stone blocks for seating. The performance circle is named for retired principal Quiles, a veteran actor. A cooling-off mist sprayer in the art area has also been affectionately dubbed the “Mister Quiles.”
Surrounding and sheltering these spaces is a ring of trees, flowers, shrubs, birdhouses, and grassy berms. A few steps away are the sundial and the two-part habitat garden. In the nearer section of the garden, a gravel walk meanders amongst relatively low native plantings, soon to be labeled with informational signs forming a Story Trail. Further along, near the edge of the schoolyard, a stand of trees and larger bushes will be allowed to grow wild.
Pictured left, the outdoor classroom (minus stools and umbrellas, in storage awaiting use).
Connecting Students to Nature
Research increasingly shows the importance of nature to children’s intellectual, emotional, and physical growth. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, argues that moving education outdoors offers myriad benefits, from strengthening problem-solving skills to defusing stress. Multiple studies have found correlations between environment-based learning and improved test scores in science, math, language arts, and other subjects.
In Seth Boyden’s OLC, birdsong and the rustle of leaves provide a backdrop for learning. Lessons on ecology, geology, weather, and a host of other subjects can be keyed directly to the setting. The new principal of the school, Damion Frye, plans to invite parents with varying specializations to be guest teachers in the space; a statistician has already agreed to help children measure various components and tabulate the data. Mr. Frye intends for each Seth Boyden class to use the OLC regularly.
“I think kids can focus when they are outside in a way that they don’t inside. They become really good ‘noticers,’” says Maggie Tuohy, the PTA’s garden liaison. They also “learn to be kind and respectful,” she observes, “not only to the creatures and things growing in the garden, but also to each other.” Nature can be a boon to creativity as well, says retiring principal Quiles: Students can “experience the musty, woodsy smell of the leaves in the fall and build a collection of spicy descriptive words to add to a writing piece.”
The grand opening event on September 16 will celebrate the long years and collaborative effort that went into Seth Boyden’s Outdoor Learning Center. After the ceremony, an even more important activity will take place in the OLC: nature-based learning.