Portsmouth school is bringing the classroom outside

By Jim McGaw
Posted 4/11/18

PORTSMOUTH — Sometime next year, elementary-aged students will be gathered around tables and looking at whiteboards while studying weather, plants, animals, soil, erosion and more in an …

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Portsmouth school is bringing the classroom outside


PORTSMOUTH — Sometime next year, elementary-aged students will be gathered around tables and looking at whiteboards while studying weather, plants, animals, soil, erosion and more in an “outdoor classroom” at Melville School.

It’s all part of an outdoor learning zone — where children can learn, play, explore and cultivate — that the district hopes will serve as a model for other schools. 

“Sometimes you have to get them out there and get their hands dirty. We want to create an outdoor learning environment for everyone,” said Melville Principal Elizabeth Viveiros. 

The fenced-in area, she said, could also be used collaboratively with students from the Hathaway and middle schools. “It will be a learning zone and as long as they can bus the children here, they would be able to utilize it as well,” the principal said.

It all started when the school installed a new play structure last summer, replacing one that was located further south and closer to the building. “We realized the reason the playground wasn’t successful there was because of the runoff; the bottom of the hill was constantly being filled with water. When we relocated our play structure, we ended up with this very large space, Ms. Viveiros said, pointing to an open area to the left of the play structure.

That’s where the outdoor classroom will go. 

“We’re going to have an outdoor white board along with tables for the students to be able to work outside for various reasons. But, the biggest push for having it in this area is there’s access to the Melville Pond. We’ll be able to be out there and utilize all those resources. What better way to utilize the current property that we have?” she said, noting that a large portion of the land could not be used otherwise.

Another component of the outdoor learning zone is a rain garden, which has been a push by Sara Churgin, a parent of a Melville student and district manager of the Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District, part of the Green Infrastructure Coalition.

“We have been doing a residential and school project in which we’re doing education about stormwater runoff and how we can mitigate. My son goes here and I’ve been trying to do a project with Liz forever. We know that a lot of stormwater collects in the backyard, so we came and said we have some money we’d love to give you for a rain garden,” said Ms. Churgin, noting that an anonymous donor contributed more than $4,500 toward the project. 

School Committee Chairwoman Terri Cortvriend said she discussed the idea with Ms. Churgin and others “about how we could get more environmental projects going here” for both students and town residents.

“We were talking about rain gardens just to address stormwater runoff and thought it could be a great demonstration project for the whole town,” said Ms. Cortvriend, adding that Melville Pond could also teach people about the science behind algae blooms.

“The rain barrels are going to be collecting the runoff from the school; we’re going to be using the gutters for all of that,” said Ms. Viveiros.

During the process, organizers were introduced to landscape architect Shannon Rozea, a parent at Guiteras School in Bristol who founded the nonprofit Thrive Outside and helped create an outdoor learning space there.

“She’s going to help us design, implement and then maintain the entire thing,” Ms. Churgin said. 

Ms. Viveiros said Thrive Outside will help school staff answer several questions regarding the discovery zone’s design. “Do we want areas for the children to sit? What kind of flowers or shrubs do we want in there? Are we going to have any sort of gardening area?” she said.

State Rep. Dennis Canario, who last week presented the principal with a legislative grant for the outdoor learning zone, said he was surprised by the scope of the project. 

“When I first talked to Terri about this, I thought it was just going to be some rain barrels to repurpose an area. I had no clue it was going to be this big. It’s blossomed into something spectacular,” Rep. Canario said. “I’m very impressed with the fact you took a project of this magnitude and did it very inexpensively.”

“One rain barrel turned into a discovery zone,” said the principal.


The outdoor classroom is phase two of the project — the play structure being phase one. It will include four picnic tables and a whiteboard, Ms. Viveiros said. 

“All that we have left is the surface that the tables will be on. The outdoor classroom should be done, I’m hoping, by the end of June and then the rain garden should be done by the end of the summer. The only phase we’d have left is the learning zone and that should take a lot of time,” she said. The entire project will hopefully be completed by summer 2019, she said.

An informational packet on the project states the discovery zone will meet next generation science and Common Core standards. Kindergarteners could learn about trees, weather and animals by planting seeds and observing birds, pill bugs and worms, for example. 

Second-graders could learn about water resources and soil, plants and insects, while fourth-graders would focus on environments and erosion. 

“We didn’t want to add to the current curriculum; there’s so much curriculum that could be addressed in the outdoor learning area. We just have the perfect area for it. It’s completely fenced in and it’s safe for the children,” said Ms. Viveiros. “The hope is we’ll really be able to attract the community — having everybody come in and use it. It’s really a hub for families.”

Superintendent of Schools Ana Riley agreed, and hinted that students from other districts may also want to take advantage of the area.

“It will be a field trip destination, and not just for our schools,” said Ms. Riley.

Melville School, Portsmouth School Department, Thrive Outside

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