Northwest NEWS

October 1, 2001


Outdoor classroom now a reality at Cottage Lake Elementary

by Bronwyn Wilson
   A little over a year ago, there wasn't anything special about the grassy space wedged between the new gym and the new pod of classrooms at Cottage Lake Elementary. But today that area has transformed. It's now a special place, even described by some as sacred. It's a space for sitting, thinking, pondering, discovering, learning and down-on-your-knees-in-the-dirt-digging.
   The area, once grassy and unnoticed, is now the Outdoor Classroom. Amphitheater seating, a rock wall seat and 4' by 8' planter boxes border an inviting courtyard paved with bricks. The eight planter boxes at one end display the wonders of nature, from fat orange pumpkins to eight-foot tall sunflowers. Some of the bricks in the center courtyard echo the inspirational words of historical figures, such as the engraved words of Mahatma Gandhi, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Many of the bricks also have the engraved names of local families, businesses or special teachers. Some are memorials and tributes.
   The focus now is assisting teachers how to use the new area. "You could go so many ways with this. It depends on how teachers and the class want to use it," said Chris Berry, coordinator for the project and WSU master gardener. Round-robin meetings are in the plans so that teachers can share ideas and information as well as problem-solve questions. Teachers may ask: what seeds can we plant now? Or how can we incorporate composting from the cafeteria?
   At a faculty meeting last August, teachers brainstormed numerous ideas for the garden space. Some of the creative suggestions included collecting the seedpods and saving the seeds for next spring and designing seed packets. In addition, teachers discussed using the space for performing arts, music, science, math, and language arts.
   However, the new area didn't remain on hold until creative learning purposes were decided. Last year, before the benches and paved plaza were constructed, students began planting seeds in the planter boxes. As an example, the second grade class had been studying garden cycles and planted pumpkin seeds. They watched the seeds sprout as they watered and cared for the plants. Returning as third graders this year, they see the results of their labor first-hand. "Now there's all kinds of pumpkins," said Berry. The current second grade class will resume the cycle and harvest and dry the seeds for planting next spring.
   While standing in the courtyard, Berry mentioned that students are already utilizing the area in many unique ways. "I know there's been some journaling out here. One teacher said, 'choose a brick and write about it.' And, my daughter's class came out with sketch books and sketched something that was inspirational to them about the garden."
   Said Principal Janie Putt, "There will be countless uses for the space." A fifth grade class plans to use the space to observe clouds and explore stars with telescopes. They will also use the bricks in the courtyard in a math lesson on area and circumference. A third grade class will use the benches for outdoor instruction and discussion.
   Pointing out that the courtyard area is conducive for community meetings, Putt said, "We had our first barbeque in that area. It's sort of a central celebration place for the school and community."
   The idea for an outdoor classroom began in 2000 when Berry taught a series of after- school gardening enrichment classes at Cottage Lake. Said Berry, "The PTA sponsored after school classes and I volunteered to do one on gardening. The classes were very successful but we didn't have space to pursue them."
   Berry talked with the PTA about funds to build raised planter beds on campus. Soon after, she and Principal Putt, along with Northshore School District Ground Supervisor Steve Bloomberg, searched for a location to place the planter beds. "We started looking for a space last fall," she explained.
   They began looking at the grassy area by the gym as a possible location for a demonstration and interpretive garden so that students could experience hands-on gardening. Said Berry, "We determined this space would be ideal."
   Landscape architect Jeff Varley donated his time to design the garden space. With the assistance of Putt, Bloomberg, Deborah Rannfeldt of the Woodinville Water District and the PTA, the garden began evolving into an Outdoor Classroom with a seating area.
   To raise money to pay for the project, the Cottage Lake PTA sold 250 personally engraved bricks that are now a part of the geometrically designed patio in the courtyard. Also, the PTA contributed a portion of their budget toward the project and numerous local corporations and organizations gave cash donations. "We raised about $35,000," said Berry.
   Now the Outdoor Classroom is a reality and available for current and future generations to enjoy. "It shows what a community can do when they focus on a goal, have a plan, take action and are committed. It wouldn't have happened without the PTA, faculty and staff, corporate sponsors and families working together."
   A sixth grade teacher commented on why the Outdoor Classroom is a big hit with the students, "It's a big deal for kids because they don't have the background [of spending time in natural environments] like we did. They're getting further and further away from nature."
   For the students at Cottage Lake, the great outdoors is just a few steps down the hall next to the gym.