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Bringing Learning to the Great Outdoors

Seth Boyden School aims to get more South Orange and Maplewood children outside and learning with a new Outdoor Learning Center.

A playground is not just a playground.

It's an outdoor learning center. And if you design it right, you can maximize the educational benefits that children get out of it.

Last night, parents, students, administrators and landscape architects all gathered in the library at to talk about the future of the school's outdoor learning center.

In 2001, the Natural Learning Initiative of NC State University helped Seth Boyden create the current outdoor space that includes the Strawberry Fields garden area, a habitat garden, an amphitheater, hard court area, a playing field, music station, some sculptures, picnic tables and a path. However, the school's "needs have evolved," said Chamie Graff, Director of Marketing, Art Education at NJPAC and a Seth Boyden parent. Along with singer/songwriter and Seth Boyden parent Peri Smilow, Graff is co-chairing the OLC effort.

Graff noted that some elements of the outdoor space have changed in the last ten years — for instance, a climbing wall has been removed for safety reasons. In addition, "visibility and maintenance are now key," drainage is a problem, and "budgets have shrunk."

Graff said the school OLC committee has been meeting for the past two years to formulate a plan to update the area — including researching playground equipment and meeting with the Board of Education several times. (According to the Board, "we are not allowed to have swings," said Graff, "and nothing taller than six feet.") They've worked with Phys. Ed. teacher Maureen Nelson, pondered fundraising strategies, surveyed parents and students, and more.

Ultimately, they sent a "wish list" to Robin C. Moore and Sarah Little of the Natural Learning Initiative to create a new, updated master plan for the Outdoor Learning Center. The wish list was built around the goals of incorporating Seth Boyden's mandate as a multi-intelligence learning school, increasing outdoor time for students, and bringing the community surrounding the school together.

Moore and Little presented the new plan last night, then conducted an interactive session with parents and students to elicit feedback.

The new plan proposes more paved — though porous — areas that will be usable in wet weather, an amended path that will provide greater visibility, more shade, improved entrances, an exciting new amphitheater that uses a natural incline in the landscape, climbing materials and a "vestibular sensory stimulation" — or spinner — to help improve students' balance. The plan also incorporates current elements that are working. "The existing habitat garden is beautiful," noted Little.

Smilow was impressed with the feedback she received from the children present:

"They were totally engaged — Lots of talk about the types of playground equipment they'd like to see in our new Outdoor Learning Center. They closed their eyes and thought about their favorite playground ever. When they opened their eyes they were filled with excitement — calling out ideas."

Those ideas included climbing structures, slides, zip lines and leap frog. The children wanted to reinstate the school's Garden Detectives Program. They wanted "an expanded music station with outdoor drums and a guitar made of nails stuck into trees with strings strung between them. They want more room to play outside when the weather gets bad. They'd like to make sure that along with the teachers that the lunch aids get to be trained in how to use the OLC."

Finally, said Smilow, "They were involved and on point and creative and their ideas will be incorporated alongside those of the adults into the final plan."

PTA VP Susie Adamson said the adults present were just as involved: "They brought in ideas from favorite parks, science centers, etc. Overall, they were very enthusiastic and supportive of the plan. Several people in each audience to whom we've presented mentioned wanting to preserve as much field space as possible. The committee agrees with this sentiment and is trying to balance that desire with the desire to have more actively engaging space."

Next, the team will work on construction dates and determine fundraising goals. Graff said that the team feels confident that most funds can be gathered through foundations, grants and corporate giving — without endless fundraisers tapping parents. "We may have one fundraiser per year. We don't want to go back and back to parents," said Graff.

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