Looking to engage students and provide a full range of experiences, Evergreen Elementary School is bringing nature into its classrooms.
Or rather, school staff members are bringing their classrooms out into nature with the initiation of the school’s new Wildwoods project — a 2.5 acre outdoor learning area located on the school’s property that will give students hands-on learning opportunities.
The project is part of the school’s goals for gaining STEAM status, adding arts back into the common STEM refrain — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — that is familiar to many parents in order to engage more student learning styles, said Evergreen Principal Hugh Maxwell.
“We just want to make sure that we didn’t lose that (art) piece. Art is important,” Maxwell explained. “It’s a way that some kids connect to the learning.”
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He added that art can often serve as a connector between different topics to help explain more complex ideas in science or technology.
A lot of our kids don’t have a vision of what their adult life would be. We live in an area that’s rich in STEAM careers.
Hugh Maxwell, Evergreen Elementary principal
The Wildwoods project is another way for Evergreen to expose its students — many low-income or under-served — to a variety of STEAM-oriented career opportunities, with the aim to tap into an underlying passion and engage them on a career path at an early age so that goal can be nurtured as students continue through the Peninsula School system.
“A lot of our kids don’t have a vision of what their adult life would be,” Maxwell said. “We live in an area that’s rich in STEAM careers.”
Leading the Wildwoods project is 12-year Evergreen teacher Therese Souers, who noted that the idea first sprang from a STEM conference that she and Maxwell attended and grew from there.
“We’re trying to get our students more engaged in their learning,” she explained. “Project based learning is really what we’re focused on.”
Souers and Maxwell approached the Peninsula School District with their Wildwoods idea, bringing along with them a five-year proposal. The project received support from the district — which also covered the cost of mowing and fencing the property — and the site was cleared of blackberries, mowed and fenced in October.
The project has received two grants early this year — the Lu Winsor Grants for Local Environmental Projects and a Tacoma Garden Club grant — and support from the Gig Harbor Home Depot, Woodbrook Nursery in Gig Harbor, and both Pierce and King conservation districts. Maxwell added that they will continue to pursue further grants to help fund the project.
The first work party — held last week — continued the site work with staff, community members, students and their families, all volunteering their time to mark the pathways and continue the process of clearing blackberries from the site.
We’re turning it into natural forest. The kids are learning stewardship and about the natural forest. It’s an area that puts kids in a different environment.
Therese Souers, Evergreen Elementary teacher
“I do feel a lot of ownership in this project and to see so many families was really uplifting for me,” Souers said.
Her family is also involved, with her granddaughters participating in the project and her daughter-in-law, Heidi Watters, a landscape architect who donated her time to develop the project’s master plan.
The final plan for Wildwoods includes outdoor learning areas, building/play areas for students, walkways and a garden shed. The area will feature native plants and trees, providing students an opportunity to learn about native species, along with stewardship practices to help protect natural areas.
“We’re turning it into natural forest. The kids are learning stewardship and about the natural forest,” Souers said. “It’s an area that puts kids in a different environment.”
Providing the outdoor space for students to learn and play not only offers opportunities for stewardship and natural science lessons, but also an unconventional setting for other classes that can help provide new experiences to engage students in learning.
Outdoor spaces can also provide opportunities for students to heal and overcome difficult experiences in their past, Maxwell said, such as those students dealing with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which Peninsula School District has seen an uptick in recently. ACEs are defined as stressful traumatic events in a child’s life that can include incidents ranging from abuse to a high-conflict parental divorce.
“Finding different ways to engage all students, to find the connection, I think is important,” Maxwell said.
We really want it to be as interactive as possible for the kids. Getting out into nature and learning that responsibility of stewardship for our kids is a big important piece.
Though the finished design is several years down the road, the Evergreen students are already involved in the project with clearing blackberries and branches and planting the first of the native plants.
“It’s a different environment that the classroom,” Souers said. “It’s an area that puts kids in a different environment.”
Also included in the project is a website detailing the project goals, work parties and providing further information for those interested. To make Wildwoods even more interactive, QR codes will be placed around the site to be scanned by smartphones and link to a website that will provide information on native plants.
Maxwell said that Evergreen students are already learning QR coding, with the aim to have older students complete research projects to contribute to Wildwoods and allow further ownership of the area by students.
“We really want it to be as interactive as possible for the kids,” Maxwell said. “Getting out into nature and learning that responsibility of stewardship for our kids is a big important piece.”
For more information on Wildwoods, including contact information and future site work days, visit sites.google.com/edtools.psd401.net/wildwoods/home.