Portland school breaks classroom walls with outdoor learning space

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PORTLAND — When kindergartners at Ocean Avenue Elementary School got a sneak peek at the school’s new outdoor classroom last week, teacher Christen Boyd asked them a series of questions, such as what they could see, feel and hear.

Their answers included, “pretty colored leaves,” “I feel cold,” and “the wind.”

“This is our outdoor classroom where we can do science stuff and find inspiration for our writing,” Boyd told the students.

“Like watching a butterfly hatch?” asked one.

The answer to that was an enthusiastic “yes, and so much more.”

“I’m super-duper excited about doing learning outside,” Boyd said while leading her students back inside. Having the new space, she said, allows teachers to “break down the classroom walls and show students that learning can happen anywhere.”

Ocean Avenue Elementary will hold a ribbon-cutting for the newly completed outdoor classroom at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2.

Boyd has taught kindergarten for the past seven years and recently attended a workshop on how to maximize learning in an outdoor setting.

“So often our young learners have the idea that learning happens in the classroom and playing happens outside,” she said. “With our new outdoor learning space, we will be able to meld those two ideas together, so that our kids understand that learning, and some of our most exciting learning, can happen outdoors.”

The outdoor learning space has been a priority since the school first opened in 2011, but it’s taken a while to pull the resources together to make it happen, said Principal Beverly Stevens.

“There was no budget or detailed plan to create the outdoor classroom,” she noted, and without the championship of Dan Noblet, from PC Construction, the project may never have happened at all.

Noblet “coordinated the donation of all the materials from Hammond Lumber, and the build, with his (own) skilled people,” Stevens said. She said architect Michael Johanning, who designed the school, also donated his time to design the outdoor classroom.

In addition, the city waived any permitting fees and city staff helped with the soil, stone dust and gravel deliveries needed for the project, Stevens said.

“Countless hours (were also) offered by numerous volunteers, including Portland Public Schools employees, OAES faculty and staff, and parent and community volunteers,” she added.

Ocean Avenue Elementary is a “green school” and the new outdoor classroom fits perfectly into that ethos, Stevens said.

With the outdoor learning space, “teachers are now able to extend and expand their classroom teaching by allowing (their students) to learn through observation and exploration in this natural setting,” the School Department said in a press release.

In addition to a traditional playground, Ocean Avenue Elementary also boasts a school garden and an obstacle course, Stevens said.

The outdoor classroom was originally the vision of Ann Hanna, a former assistant principal at Ocean Avenue Elementary, who is now principal of Riverton Elementary.

It consists of a raised platform that’s trapezoidal in shape, with fixed bench seating. There’s easy access from the library or one of the many paved walking paths that surround the school.

“(Thanks to the new outdoor learning space,) the school continues to grow to meet the needs of its students and families by providing a world of opportunities in and out of the classroom,” the School Department release said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Christen Boyd, a kindergarten teacher at Ocean Avenue Elementary in Portland, enjoys the school’s new outdoor classroom with her students. They got a sneak peek at the space in advance of Friday’s planned ribbon-cutting.

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