Providence Country Day School receives Champlin Grant for outdoor classroom

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EAST PROVIDENCE — As the New England winter slowly thaws into spring, energy begins shifting to the outdoors.

At The Providence Country Day School balls careen across the green lacrosse and baseball fields, students read on the lawn outside during free periods, and they plead with teachers to hold class outdoors.

The latter creates a conundrum: PCD has a lot of outdoor space but until recently, most of it had not been well optimized as a natural educational area.

“It’s always been out there,” PCD science teacher Mary Frances Hanover said, “but now we’re making good use of it!”

Treating the outdoors as “a new resource we never had,” last year Hanover set about transforming PCD’s ten-plus acres of woodland and wetlands into a real outdoor classroom.

One of the outcomes was a successful request for a grant from the Champlin Foundations that provided support to enhance the campus’ role as an outdoor educational facility.

The Foundations were enthusiastic about the initiatives that would be made possible as a result of their gift. Once the funding was secured, PCD began to design and implement the plan.

The first stages required engaging the Department of Environmental Management and the town of East Providence to identify the existing natural habitats and species on campus, delineating where the protected wetlands were, and working within the state’s regulations.

Ms. Hanover noted that although the process was lengthy, she learned a tremendous amount about the school’s ecosystem, information that she is eager to share with her classes.

While the regulatory and investigatory work was ongoing, the community came together this fall to prepare the campus. On a blustery fall day, 84 members of the community gathered to clear trails and celebrate the campus’ potential.

The turnout completely exceeded expectations and eliminated the need for the three additional workdays that had been planned. Even more important than the sheer volume of work accomplished, the day proved to Hanover that the project was important to many, many more people than she imagined.

The next crucial step began last week , as construction gets underway on a pavilion to be located in the campus woods. When completed (for the 2013-2014 school year), the structure will serve as the focal point of a complete teaching and learning space, offering ample shelter, a natural study area, and bench seating for any class in the school.

Teachers will be able to use the space for classes, as well as a central meeting area
for students doing independent work along the nature trails. An English class might use it as refuge to discuss Thoreau on a warm fall afternoon. An art class might use it for observational renderings; a math class might take the opportunity to consider Fibonacci’s series on a pinecone.

The goal, Ms. Hanover said, is to “encourage all teachers and students to find applications in nature for whatever they are doing and to make it a larger part of their lives.”

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