Siwanoy’s new outdoor classroom completed, offering a new green learning space for Pelham’s youth

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The outdoor classroom started as an idea to create an outdoor learning space that provided students at Siwanoy Elementary School an opportunity to learn through nature. The outdoor classroom will be officially opened Monday, a testament to years of fundraising, planning and construction that have brought the project to fruition. 

The outdoor classroom is separated into nine distinct sections that are linked by a brick path. Sections like the messy materials and building areas have obvious appeal to rambunctious students, while the more introspective can collect themselves in the nature art area.

“The idea is that there will be something for everybody,” said Siwanoy principal Susan Gilbert. “I imagine there are children who would love to sit and just write or read or draw here or to find bugs and draw them.”

The outdoor classroom is at once a teaching tool and an outlet for energetic students, said Gilbert. “For children with attentional issues, children with behavioral issues, children who need hands on activities to really understand, the outdoor classroom benefits a wider range of children than just those who learn by sitting in a classroom reading a book or listening to the teacher,” she said.

The outdoor classroom project began in 2015, when Nature Explore, a nonprofit that specializes in outdoor classrooms, designed a tentative outline which utilized a previously unused strip of land behind Siwanoy. In 2016, Westchester architect Michael Molinelli converted those preliminary plans into blueprints.

With an initial estimated budget of $160,000, Pelham administrators, the Pelham Education Foundation, the Siwanoy PTA, and a newly founded Outdoor Classroom Committee worked to raise funds. Private donations coming from Siwanoy’s Race For Education and Buy a Brick campaigns have raised a total of $133,000. Former Senator Jeffrey Klein has supplied $160,000 in grant money to support the project.

While construction of the outdoor classroom was slated to be in the summer of 2017, delays ultimately pushed back groundbreaking to December 19, 2018. A total of $255,000 have been spent on the outdoor classroom.

Within the classroom, there is a clear focus on nature that is reflected in the deliberate furniture choices and plantings. Logs and tree stumps make up the seating, while tree cookies, huge tree trunk slabs, and wooden building blocks are available for students to build with. All furnishings are wooden and custom built by the district carpenter. The milkweed plants towards the back of the outdoor classroom naturally attract butterflies and caterpillars to the monarch butterfly habitat in the garden area, which will be cared for by the third grade.

The imposing black steel arch that presides over the entrance of the outdoor classroom—which is reminiscent of Siwanoy’s gothic windows—is emblematic of Nature Explore’s design philosophy of integrating elements of each school into their designs.

Lesson plans have already been devised that use the outdoor classroom to study life cycles, habitats and biomes as part of the science syllabus. While applications in science are clear, Gilbert emphasized that all subjects connect with nature. For example, students will plant a traditional Iroquois ‘Three Sisters” garden while learning about Native Americans in social studies. Instruction time in the outdoor classroom will be coordinated with the six day cycle that is standard to all schools in Pelham.

Beyond academics, Gilbert sees the outdoor classroom as a way to attune students’ bonds with nature. “I think if you are going to be a steward of the earth and of the future without a connection to the outdoors, you’re not going to really understand the importance,” Gilbert said. “I think children spending, if they’re spending all their time indoors and on screens or even in books, they’re missing out on the wonder and awe of the natural world.”

Amie Hughes, parent of three, welcomed this new addition to Siwanoy. “I think these kids have so much to do in the day and the outdoor classroom is a wonderful way for them to get out of the class and relax and have downtime,” she said. “I think it’s really good for them to be outside in nature and with some instruction. I think it would be really helpful to have a butterfly garden and plants and all sorts of things that they can learn about while they’re relaxing.” She lamented the loss of free time in the school day—nap times and recess—and saw the outdoor classroom as a step back in the right direction.

The outdoor classroom is part of a larger trend towards experiential, inquiry based learning, which has led some to draw comparisons between the outdoor classroom and another recent addition to Siwanoy, the indoor maker space.

Reception amongst students has generally been positive, though some fifth graders were disappointed that they will only be able to use the outdoor classroom for a month before their graduation. As it stands, students are not allowed into the outdoor classroom until the ribbon cutting ceremony on May 20.