All in the Family
Long before he retired in 1986, science teacher Thomas Rider started a “nature study area” next to one of the two adjacent schools that are the Alexander, New York public school system. Back then, children routinely spent more time in nature than is typical today. Yet over the years, as nature’s role in children’s lives diminished, the area’s usage declined. By 2010 it saw little activity.
Over the decades, one of Thomas Rider’s former students, Ellie Jinks, watched this transition. She watched from the preschool classrooms in which she has now taught for almost forty-two years. Like her science teacher, Ellie always believed that nature is important to children. In 2011, Ellie spearheaded a project to revive the nature study area. Thomas Rider would be pleased to know that his legacy has been updated by the addition of the Nature Explore Classroom. And he would be proud of Ellie Jinks, his niece, the “mastermind” behind the project.
Ellie, who teaches children three through five years in Elementary School, had long wanted to develop the area. When a parent suggested trying to get funding through a Pepsi (Cola) challenge grant, townspeople voted; with bottle caps. Rural Alexander, a farming town with a total school population of around 800 (including pre-K), got huge support from her citizens, and from votes around the country. Alexander’s outdoor classroom project placed fourth in the nation, and was awarded a $50,000 grant. Donations from many local businesses, and volunteer labor from the community, then built the Alexander Outdoor Classroom.
When funding had first been secured, the idea was to build a natural playground. Through internet research the playground committee discovered Nature Explore. Our outdoor classroom model made perfect sense to Ellie, as its structure contains elements of indoor classrooms. Its design inspires play and learning.
Until the outdoor classroom was built, the children played on the traditional playground without truly interacting with nature. Now they spend time in the Alexander Outdoor Classroom both in free play, and in curricular activities.
Alexander’s is a rare outdoor classroom in that it serves children from preschool through high school. To get a better sense of its varied usage, I spoke with Ellie, and with Kitty Maerten, Superintendent of the Alexander Schools.
While preschoolers might use the outdoor classroom for play as well as lessons, the upper grades use it largely for science projects and experiments. For the past couple of years, Kitty has posed a “most creative lesson” challenge to all her teachers; preK through high school. Projects designed for the outdoor classroom are documented through photos and a write-up. An award is given for the most creative project. A link from the classroom’s web page connects to a whole series of lesson plans designed specifically for the space.
Another usage for the older students also involves the younger children. As part of the Outdoor Education high school classes, older students work with preschoolers in the outdoor classroom. A creek at the edge of the classroom yields crayfish, plants, minnows and more, for the older students to introduce to the preschoolers. Best of all, this nature education provided to the preschoolers is partial fulfillment of the Outdoor Education class coursework.
“There’s no end to the kind of things you can do out there,” said Kitty as she described partnerships that have enriched the outdoor classroom experience.
Local Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners have helped with planting native plants, and assist children with plant identification. Eagle Scout Jon Tyx built and installed two open storage units and three “Little Reference Libraries.” The storage units hold natural materials to be used for building and creating, while the little libraries house reference materials to be used by teachers and students. Genessee County Parks, Project Wild, the Rochester Zoo and others have contributed programs. Partnerships built the outdoor classroom, and continue to enrich its services to the school and community.
The Alexander Outdoor Classroom, built by the townspeople, allows community access when school is not in session. Although some materials used during the school day are stored in locked sheds, the classroom remains open to all. Families may bring children there to play and learn, or for outings and family gatherings. During the town’s summer recreation program, one day a week is spent in the outdoor classroom.
Now that Ellie’s dream has materialized, she has a variety of observations and expectations about the Alexander Outdoor Classroom. She sees that its freedoms allow children rare opportunities for expressiveness. “So many kids now are anxious and are not willing to let their inner joy show, even the little ones. When they’re outside and running with the scarves, that opens them up.” She sees its importance in fostering stewardship of nature. “I just know they [the kids] love going there. Being able to make a connection with nature is going to be important for all of us down the line. Kids have to value nature in order to protect it.” And coming during the autumn of a long career in teaching, the outdoor classroom is inspirational to her, as well. “Being involved in the outdoor classroom project has renewed my interest in teaching so it really has helped me personally. This will be my forty-second year coming up.”
Small, rural towns can have special ways of building traditions. Generations of families maintain long friendships in communities that unite around civic projects. Alexander’s outdoor classroom became a cause adopted by many. Its original space was Thomas Riders legacy to the town. When updating was needed, Ellie Jinks, his student and niece, revived the family ethic of service to children through nature. Alexander’s outdoor classroom is living tradition.
At the end of the past school year, Ellie Jinks retired after 43 years of teaching. But you’ll still find her in the Alexander Outdoor Classroom. She is now working with children from grades K-5, as the Crafts and Activities Director in the school’s summer recreation program.
And she writes that she’s excited to share this article with her 92 year old mother, Thomas Rider’s sister.
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