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Willow Lane Outdoor Classroom Seems Like Natural Next Step

Organizers at school in Lower Macungie want to add a hands-on component to the learning process.

The inaugural year at is only about three-quarters complete and already there is talk of an addition.

In fact, some serious planning has been under way for months.

Instead of poor planning or an influx of new pupils, the idea of providing an addition is a bonus, not an oversight. That addition is expected to come in the form of an Outdoor Classroom that would provide a multi-disciplinary, hands-on learning experience for the children, according to project Chairwoman Susan Hafner.

Hafner, who also serves as vice president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, said the idea grew from wanting to plant a garden at the school.  She also liked the outdoor teaching area put together by the district’s Lincoln Elementary School in Emmaus and hoped something similar could be created at Willow Lane. These thoughts brought discussions followed by teacher surveys to see what would make the project most useful.

The enthusiastic response hatched the following plan: construct a vegetable garden and probably a butterfly and insect garden as well by the end of this school year. The gardens would be coordinated so that plants would be included that would attract the desired insects. The project could be expanded in years to come to include an amphitheater to serve as an outdoor educational and perhaps performance area.

“We want to start small, but we want this to grow,” Hafner said. “The advice from others is to bite off small chunks, but keep the interest and keep it growing.”

The intent is to provide hands-on learning in many disciplines. Obviously, science is a big area in which pupils can view the growth of plants and vegetables and such things as the metamorphosis of a butterfly from a caterpillar. But Hafner said other lessons can be taught as well. Healthy eating, math, engineering, technology and art can be related, too.

Students already are involved. Some teachers have been asked to have their students begin research necessary for a butterfly garden, such as compatible plants and other necessary elements to attract and keep butterflies.

With a loose plan in mind, the committee set to work, pooling its own expertise and seeking that of others. That includes fundraising, technical advice and donated services.

Hafner believes the Outdoor Classroom will be situated in the front of the building, to the Willow Lane side. But, she said, a determination of proper water and sunlight will have to be made to better ensure the viability of the garden.

The group has been offered design assistance by a landscape architect.  Someone else has agreed to write grant proposals. Others will solicit hardware stores and landscape businesses in hopes they will donate materials.

Until a plan is finalized, it will be difficult to estimate a cost, Hafner said, adding the extent of donations also will vary the price tag. But she roughly estimates that  the three sections could cost several thousand dollars each.

An initial design was submitted and discussed by the committee about a week ago. Steve Jageilski of Joanne Kostecky Garden Design prepared a that shows a desired three-section classroom. The seating area would be flanked by a vegetable garden and butterfly garden if enough money can be raised and the plan reaches fruition.

The design is a starting point, according to Principal Anthony Moyer. He agreed with Hafner that the project will take time to be fully developed, in large part because of money.

But Moyer also said wants "high levels of student engagement," meaning he would like to see them help design and build much of the project. He said he is not as much concerned with providing a top-notch, professional-looking facility that quickly will be erected as he is with helping elementary students build something themselves.

He believes the students won't fully learn the process or appreciate the project if adults simply provide them with a facility.

"If we do it that way, students won't be a part of the process," he said. "If there is no buy-in, it's not going to continue to be used."

Similarly, Moyer would like for there to be a full partnership with the project. Like Hafner, he believes it is important for the students, their parents, staff and community to work together.

Although he is recommending a slower process for more complete student involvement, Moyer also believes it would be important to see some results this school year to "no pun intended, plant the seed."

He is suggesting to at least start by planting a garden, like what they had at his former school, Wescosville Elementary, and see where the project takes them in phases.

Moyer also credited Hafner's dedication and organization.

Monthly Outdoor Classroom meetings average about a dozen, although Hafner said there are several additional interested members behind the scenes.  The next meeting will be at 7 p.m. April 20 in the school library. The committee hopes to determine the project's first phase so that work can begin. Anyone interested in joining should contact her at susanhafner@gmail.com.

Hafner hopes to get some garden beds dug and planting under way in May. In the meantime, teachers and others have said they will help apply for grants. Hafner said they have been offered a good amount of free labor, so what is really needed is donations of items such as topsoil, stone, garden timbers, trellis, soaker hoses, gloves, a wheel barrow or garden cart, and garden tools.

“We’d like to have some tangible things to see by the end of the school year,” she said.

Hafner said the group also has interest from the Lower Macungie Garden Club to partner on the project. “We want to make it a community event, too,” she said. Any individual is welcome to donate time, professional services or materials.

The school has some methods for the community to follow the progress. One volunteer has offered to develop a blog to report progress. The school also has an Outdoor Classroom page on its website.

The committee held a spaghetti dinner fundraiser (see photos from the event) that sold out on March 25 in the school cafeteria. Hafner said 278 attended the event, which raised an estimated $1,200 toward the project. The dinner included music and other entertainment, but also afforded the committee a chance to provide a project overview.

Fundraisers will continue, including the current sale of tote bags and T-shirts, for $8 and $10, respectively, with the Outdoor Classroom logo.

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