Healthy environments provide safe, fun learning opportunities for youth and adults, and enhance the value of outdoor learning. This concept became a reality in Calhoun County when the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation recently certified two sites, Wellborn Elementary School and Cane Creek Community Gardens, as just the second and third certified Nature Explore Classrooms in Alabama (J.D. & Annie S. Hays Nature Preserve in Huntsville was the first). Wellborn Elementary is the first certified Nature Explore Classroom in Alabama located at a school. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System was a vital partner in the efforts to create these outdoor classrooms. Calhoun County Extension Coordinator David West says these classrooms provide well-crafted and effective outdoor learning spaces for children.
Nature Explore Classrooms are part of the Nature Explore program, a collaborative project of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. Developed in response to the growing disconnect between children and nature, certified Nature Explore Classrooms are designed to help fill the void by educating young children using research-based principles for integrating nature into their daily learning.
According to West, a Calhoun County Master Gardener and former PTO officer initiated the outdoor classroom project at Wellborn Elementary. The current PTO president completed the Master Gardener volunteer training class to help with project maintenance and expansion.
"It is a school with a strong 4-H program so they were very receptive to our partnership," West says.
The Wellborn site is an outdoor classroom space enclosed by school buildings with two alleyway exits. There are outdoor musical instruments made of natural materials, labeled plants, a water feature, open spaces, music and movement area, and an amphitheater that can accommodate 250 people. These elements provide children important and inspiring nature experiences. While connecting children with nature, such unstructured play and activities are shown to enhance concentration, develop creativity and problem-solving, relieve stress and improve skills in many areas.
“The certification is a portal to an expansion of ideas and projects currently underway in our school,” says Principal Douglas O’Dell.
O’Dell sees the project as a cooperative effort between the community, Extension and the school to improve the lives of all stakeholders in the community. He anticipates that the school’s 625 students will spend time in the outdoor classroom learning science, math and music.
According to West, Wellborn Elementary School's commitment to the project was unique. “I value their trust in ACES professionals and our trained 4-H and Master Gardener volunteers to help them complete the project. They took a site that was unattractive and transformed it into the most attractive, enjoyable setting on campus."
The other site, Cane Creek Community Gardens, has been an Extension project since its creation in 2007. West says that Extension was originally assigned a community garden project at the former Fort McClellan to assist with economic redevelopment. The Gardens and Outdoor Classroom now have become part of a larger 17-acre Cane Creek Sustainability Center, which houses the Community Gardens, Outdoor Classroom, and soon, a recycling center. Cane Creek has 52 raised bed garden plots, a Master Gardener Classroom, a plasticulture irrigation demonstration, restrooms, two barns, outdoor classroom area with required Nature Explore venues, walking trails, labeled plantings and a wildlife room under development. According to West, as plantings and forested areas mature, the classrooms will change to reflect the environmental change.
"After our success with that project, we expanded to include a wooded area with two creeks,” he adds. Extension crafted learning areas around the existing natural areas, blending it into the landscape. The Calhoun County Commission and the Coosa Valley Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) Council provided essential funding for the classroom project.
A group that has made significant contributions to the Cane Creek Community Garden is the Calhoun County Master Gardeners. Truman Norred, current president of the group, mentioned that eight volunteers helped with planning the two Nature Explore Classrooms.
Norred considers the Wellborn Elementary school site a great place for outdoor learning that will be used by the student body. According to him, the Cane Creek site was visited by more than 2,000 people during the past year.
“It provides Master Gardeners who wish to work with children outdoors, a certified venue to conduct training,” says Norred.
The Master Gardeners host an Earth Day event for 800 fourth graders in the county school system. “We plan to use the outdoor class room in conjunction with our Community Gardens and Recycling Center. From July 9 through August 3, it is also the venue for Camp Cane Creek, a day camp for 6- to 12-year-olds. In addition, we host an annual Fall Fest for the entire family. It also is the location for our annual plant sale.”
Both sites were designed with the assistance of students and faculty from the Auburn University Department of Horticulture. Professor Gary Keever worked with the Wellborn group, and Assistant Professor Carolyn Robinson helped with the Cane Creek project. Sponsors who provided design and construction at the sites include Legacy, The Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama, Coosa Valley RC & D Council, Calhoun County Master Gardeners, Calhoun County Beautification Board, Calhoun County Commission, Wellborn faculty and students, and others.
West says the Calhoun County sites will serve as examples for other schools to begin or expand their opportunities for outdoor education. He notes that not every class has to be about the outdoors, but almost every class can be conducted outdoors.
"Children need the opportunity to be outside and experience their natural environment. I am hopeful that other schools will begin outdoor classroom projects, and that they will seek certifications for those sites."
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