West Elementary opening new Outdoor Classroom


Photo: The group on Sunday, Sept. 11 who broke ground on the new Outdoor Classroom

CULLMAN – Were you that child who learned tactically? You might have wanted to feel the texture of tree bark, or the smoothness of a stone, or maybe you loved to hold wiggly worms in your hands, not caring one bit if you got dirty. If you were that child and you never had the opportunity to learn all you wanted by touching, tasting or hearing things outdoors, or smelling the flowers along life’s pathways, now you have the opportunity to change all that!

The new Outdoor Classroom at West Elementary offers opportunities for everyone, both young and young at heart. By transforming the outdoor space into a learning environment, children can enjoy a full range of activities as they spend quality time experiencing nature.

"This is going to be great for our students," said West Elementary Principal, Dr. Jay Page. "We've had a shift in the Alabama Course of Study for Science, which focuses more on engineering, investigation and technology. This offers our students more hands-on experience. Sponsored in part by a grant from the Alabama Wildlife Federation, the Outdoor Classroom will even feature a weather station. We are all excited."

According to Rachel Dawsey, director of the North Alabama Agriplex, West Elementary is enrolled in the Alabama Outdoor Classroom (AOC) Program—a partnership between the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF), Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Alabama Cooperative Extension System that provides technical assistance for schools who want to develop sustainable outdoor classroom sites that can be utilized as effective teaching tools.

West Elementary’s Outdoor Classroom site is the vision of their Outdoor Classroom planning committee, which includes West Elementary teachers, the Cullman County Master Gardeners, North Alabama Agriplex staff and AmeriCorps VISTAS.  April Lupardus Waltz, AWF conservation education specialist, is providing technical assistance to help design their Outdoor Classroom site and also assisted with their Outdoor Classroom Days on Sept. 13-14.

But it takes a lot of time and effort to make this vision a reality.

According to Educational Outreach Coordinator for the Agriplex, Mandy-Shea Riggins, your help couldn’t come at a better time. “We need all kinds of things,” said an enthusiastic Riggins. “We can use materials and equipment, volunteers and donations (through PayPal) for the things we need to complete the new outdoor classroom. “

Riggins gave several examples of what is needed and what those things might be used for. “For instance, we could use someone’s leftover building materials like wood or a piece of tin for building a rabbit hutch, and we would be delighted if someone has a bunny to donate,” she laughed.

Ground breaking for the outdoor classroom was Sunday, Sept. 11. Riggins estimates that about 50 parents and children participated in the afternoon’s work session.

Not all students have the opportunity to have a garden, but in the Outdoor Classroom, there is a new and wonderful world awaiting them, opening them up to experiences they might not otherwise have.

“The Outdoor Classroom concept gives kids a chance to get outside, interact with nature, such as birds, butterflies, dragonflies, turtles and frogs,” Riggins explained. “We accomplished a lot in just two hours yesterday, like digging up sod and making a 130’ crush and run pathway for the kids, building a turtle habitat and a learning pavilion,” said Riggins.

“This sort of activity gives them a way to study animal behavior, do science experiments with soil and caring for plants – feeding and watering what they plant,” said Riggins.

She went on to explain how the kids have to work differently outside, as opposed to inside. “They learn to be quiet and listen,” she said. “They are learning a lifelong lesson here, about sustainable gardening, and many other valuable lessons. Cullman County is the biggest farming county in the state, so they need to know everything we can teach them about growing things.”

For one parent it was a true family affair. Adrian Scott went to help with the classroom and got hooked by seeing his children work, digging, building places for toads and frogs to hide, and learning as they went.

“We accomplished a lot in a short time,” said Scott, whose daughter, Payton, 11, is a student at West Elementary. Scott is very proud of what the group did to transform the spot into a natural habitat. “My daughter loves nature and became interested in having a turtle enclosure at home after helping to build the one in the Outdoor Classroom,” said Scott.

“It was good experience for my son to do that kind of work,” Scott said of his 15-year-old son, Blayne. Blayne is a Cullman High 10th grader.

“We also met other parents and students who were there working on the project and we accomplished a great deal as a community and as a group in a very short amount of time,” Scott concluded. “And the time went by very quickly!”

Riggins says that future plans for the area include the rabbit hutch, an animal /nature section, eventually a frog pond, raised vegetable and flower beds and a habitat for songbirds, butterflies, herbs and other sensory plants.

The funds and materials for West Elementary’s new Outdoor Classroom learning stations came from a Whole Kids Foundation Grant along with donations from parents and Cullman Regional Medical Center, First South Farm Credit, West Elementary PTA, Cullman Power Board, Littrell Brothers, Buettner Brothers, Lowe’s and Eidson and Associates.

Learn how you can help with this project by visiting the West Elementary outdoor classroom or the Agriplex, or contact the Agriplex at cullmanagriplex@gmail.com.

A goal of the Alabama Outdoor Classroom Program is to provide hands-on, outdoor learning opportunities that allow students of all ages to utilize multiple-disciplinary skills in a fun and exciting environment.  At present, over 300 schools across Alabama are developing and using Outdoor Classroom sites through this program.  For more information, please visit the AWF’s website at www.alabamawildlife.org or contact April Lupardus Waltz, also the AOC Program state coordinator, in Huntsville at 256-882-9183.


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