The outdoor learning center at Lukancic Middle School gives teachers a tool for connecting the classroom and nature.
Nature nurtures learning. Being outdoors gives children a healthy dose of “green” that fosters development and supports growth in every way: intellectual, emotional, social, and physical. Simply getting outside can deliver measurable benefits, and schools like Lukancic Middle School in Romeoville are providing teachers a tool to take advantage of all that nature can offer with an outdoor learning center.
The Romeoville, Ill.-based school is the first in the Valley View School District to have a dedicated outdoor learning center designed to connect children with nature, and to promote effective learning outside of the classroom. “Two of the biggest concerns today with students are attention-related learning issues and obesity, and these outdoor learning centers address both and give teachers a platform for teaching in a natural environment,” says Nicole Bradley, Marketing Manager at Sebert Landscape.
The outdoor learning center at Lukancic Middle School was a natural extension of Sebert Landscape's corporate commitment to giving back and sheer passion for plants and nature. This year alone, Sebert Landscape hosted a number of community events, including a Come Alive Outside event at the Huntley Park District that drew more than 750 people who were interested in reconnecting with the outdoors. Next year they will host three Come Alive Outside events, and by 2018 they plan on hosting at least five.
“To us, the outdoor learning center goes beyond construction,” Bradley relates. “We don’t just go in and put in a learning center and leave. We are providing resources for teachers, staff, students and the community guiding them on ways to use the space.”
The project goes far beyond design-and-build, she explains. Sebert partnered with the school district to: dream it, design it and create. “The project will be a true success when we use it and integrate it,’” Bradley says.
With the outdoor learning center at Lukancic, teachers now have a valuable teaching tool right outside their classroom doors. “It’s about getting children outside, and in the society we live in today many times kids are not going outdoors,” points out Principal Tricia Rollerson, who was instrumental in this project. “The outdoor learning center is a calm area—a very focused area. Our teachers are very excited about the opportunity.”
Phasing In an Outdoor Learning Center
Ideas for the outdoor learning center began propagating soon after the construction of Lukancic Middle School 11 years ago. A courtyard space was designated to be a learning area, but the bushy, vegetative landscape installed there was not conducive to teaching. So for years, the space existed but was not fully utilized.
Rollerson and other administrators saw great potential.
“In order for the space to be utilized as a classroom, it would need to accommodate up to 30 students and have areas for smaller groups to break up and learn,” Rollerson says. “Over the years, we had been working with the maintenance department to get the space more student-centered, more of a true learning environment rather than a forest-and-trees setting. It was not an accommodating space that teachers could use.”
Michael Singleton, Grounds Lead at Valley View School District, says administrators and teachers gathered to talk about their priorities for the space. After a conversation between Singleton and Bradley, the district enlisted in Sebert in summer 2015 to visit the property and provide some drafts of a fully functional outdoor learning center.
The space had to be conductive to actually teaching. “We give educators the tools to teach the kids—and now with the outdoor learning center, we can’t wait to see how they use it,” Singleton says.
The plans grew from that initial site visit, says Jen Czaja, Landscape Designer at Sebert Landscape. The master plan—which could evolve as phases are completed—includes four distinct spaces. One is ring seating to accommodate an average class, with room for students to spread out for independent work. This area also contains raised garden beds for students and staff. This phase has been completed and is ready for the 2017 school year.
The second phase is less formal, with a berm and boulder seating. It will serve as a more casual teaching environment. “There was already a little hill in the area, so we are utilizing that berm, large boulders and turf to create an informal area that would be conducive to art classes, language arts and more,” Czaja says.
The third area is traditional landscape, and the fourth phase is a prairie path that will serve as a touch-and-feel interactive classroom. Students can learn about native plants, birds, insects and biodiversity. “This space is designed to be a living lab,” Czaja says.
Each phase of the project provides unique benefits—including teaching flexibility and focused space for children to learn and explore.
“We want to turn this over to the teachers and see how they make it work,” Singleton says, relating that the outdoor learning center at Lukancic can serve as a model for other district schools.
Giving Evidence of Healthy Outcomes
Lukancic teachers and staff gathered at an August presentation in the new outdoor learning center, where Sebert Landscape shared the range of opportunities the new space will afford teachers. “You are a living lab for us,” Bradley told them, relating that the Sebert team is a resource for forwarding their outdoor learning goals.
Sebert’s interest in sharing its passion for the outdoors begins with projects like this that plant seeds of interest in green spaces. And research shows that outdoor learning is instrumental in overall childhood development. According to American Institutes for Research, schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based education see improved results in social studies, science, language arts and math. Science testing scores improved by 27 percent among students in outdoor science programs, according to the study.
Plus, being out in nature can reduce the symptoms of attention deficit disorder in children, based on a 2004 study by Kuo and Taylor.
Being outside improves nutrition, social skills, self-discipline and reduces stress. The list goes on. But fewer children are realizing the benefits of the great outdoors because of our society’s focus on the screen rather than the “scene” outside.
Outdoor learning centers like those at Lukancic Middle School give teachers a venue for capturing the power of nature as an educational driver.
Rollerson says, “Now we have a comfortable learning environment where kids can focus on the information being shared with them while they are outdoors.”
Written By: Kristen Hampshire | WriteHand Co.
If you'd more information about creating an Outdoor Learning Center at your school or office, please contact Sebert Landscape by calling 630 497-1000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.