Seth Boyden School inaugurates outdoor classroom

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — After two decades of gradually transforming its backyard into a vibrant outdoor learning center, Seth Boyden Elementary School in Maplewood inaugurated the final and most highly anticipated phase of the project: an open-air classroom bordered by an art nook, a performance area and a large habitat garden — a space that the public is free to enjoy when school is not in session, according to a press release.

Principal Damion Frye led the grand opening ceremony for the new space Friday, Sept. 16, saying, “Learning is messy, teaching is messy, especially with elementary age students. This gives our kids an opportunity to learn in a space not confined by four walls and a ceiling.”

After the school’s fifth-graders sang the school song, former PTA President Tia Swanson took the microphone to talk about the history of the OLC and to thank those who had worked on the project throughout the years, many of whom returned to Seth Boyden for the grand opening.

“In our daily lives, we don’t often have a chance to change the world and make it a better place,” Swanson said. “But we’ve done that here. We’ve changed the world for every Seth Boyden student.”

Other speakers included Bill Scerbo, the landscape architect who worked on the last phase of the design; Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr.; Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca; and South Orange President Sheena Collum.

“What a great example of the power of community,” Ramos said at the event. “What a great example of intergenerational cooperation. And what better place to do it than in this amazing Seth Boyden community?”

Seth Boyden’s rear schoolyard was a patchy dust bowl until the late 1990s, when parent Lorraine Gibbons spearheaded the creation of Strawberry Fields, a sprawling raised-bed vegetable garden tended by the students. Gibbons then enlisted the Natural Learning Initiative of North Carolina State University to draw up plans for a complete overhaul of the yard. Relying on these plans, the school installed a playground, an oval track and outdoor exercise equipment. In a second phase, after a revision of the plans in 2010, two more large play structures were added.

Then the project stalled. Estimates for building the outdoor classroom — planned as a roofed pavilion by architect and Seth Boyden parent Huzefa Irfani — far exceeded the available funds.

Swanson recalled a sense of discouragement. “There were three rounds of bids from contractors, but nothing was affordable,” Swanson said in a press release.

The breakthrough came last year from Seth Boyden parent Matthias Ebinger, a specialist in construction management. Ebinger took the reins of the PTA’s OLC Committee in June 2015, bringing Swanson aboard as co-chairperson.

“I know that almost every project runs into (a shortage of funds),” he explained in the release, “and that there is always a way out. In this case, it was the landscape architect William Scerbo who solved the problem.”

Ebinger and Scerbo realized that the classroom didn’t have to be a built structure — it could be open to the sky. Scerbo, whose firm is in West Orange, swiftly formulated a new design, preserving as much of Irfani’s original concept as possible but translating it into a landscaped environment.

In the spring, local businesses and some 200 community members came together to enact the new vision. Evergreen Landscaping of Butler did the heavy construction work, and Glenn’s Landscaping of Maplewood donated a day of its crew and equipment to transport topsoil and plant more than 30 trees. Volunteers did everything else, from planting and mulching to putting up birdhouses and running irrigation lines. The OLC committee’s public relations chairman, Kevin Kraft, put out calls on Facebook for Seth Boyden families and other supporters to join evening and weekend work sessions. Apple and Google provided volunteers as well. At these work events, the schoolyard swarmed with adults and children pushing wheelbarrows and digging in the dirt.

“It was an amazing way to get to know other Seth Boyden parents better,” Kraft said in the release.

By the time the school year ended, the classroom was close enough to being finished that the PTA was able to hold an event there to honor retiring Principal Mark Quiles, under whose 10-year leadership so much of the project had taken shape.

The modest budget for the project came from numerous PTA fundraisers and an array of grants. Sustainable Jersey, a nonprofit that supports environmentally friendly programs in New Jersey schools and communities, awarded the project $10,000 in 2015. Other grants and donations came from the Maplewood and South Orange Open Space Trust funds, the Rotary Club, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Target. Maplewood HVAC company Woolley Home Solutions contributed funds toward a large in-ground sundial.

Seth Boyden PTA’s Outdoor Learning Center Committee was instrumental in steering the project to completion. In addition to co-chairpersons Ebinger and Swanson and PR officer Kraft, the committee included Caryn Emmons, who managed the finances; Lizete Monteiro, who planned fundraising events; David Anstatt, who helped to manage construction; and Elizabeth Ebinger, who oversaw logistics.

The fruit of all of this fundraising and labor is a complex of hardscaped and natural elements. The centerpiece, the outdoor classroom, is a large stone-paved circle furnished with tables, stools, protective umbrellas and a gigantic chalkboard on wooden posts — the chalkboard is so heavy that half a dozen men were needed to lift it. An apron of bricks with inscriptions from donors leads to two smaller circles: an art nook, which children are free to decorate with sidewalk chalk, and a miniature theater-in-the-round, equipped with a ring of stone blocks for seating. The performance circle is named for retired principal Quiles, a veteran actor. A cooling-off mist sprayer in the art area has also been affectionately dubbed the “Mister Quiles.”

Surrounding and sheltering these spaces is a ring of trees, flowers, shrubs, birdhouses and grassy berms. A few steps away are the sundial and the two-part habitat garden. In the nearer section of the garden, a gravel walk meanders among relatively low native plantings, soon to be labeled with informational signs forming a “story trail.” Further along, near the edge of the schoolyard, a stand of trees and larger bushes will be allowed to grow wild.

Research increasingly shows the importance of nature to children’s intellectual, emotional, and physical growth. Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” argues that moving education outdoors offers myriad benefits, from strengthening problem-solving skills to defusing stress. Multiple studies have found correlations between environment-based learning and improved test scores in science, math, language arts and other subjects.

In Seth Boyden’s OLC, birdsong and the rustle of leaves provide a backdrop for learning. Lessons on ecology, geology, weather and a host of other subjects can be keyed directly to the setting. Principal Frye plans to invite parents with varying specializations to be guest teachers in the space; a statistician has already agreed to help children measure various components and tabulate the data. Frye intends for each Seth Boyden class to use the OLC regularly.

“I think kids can focus when they are outside in a way that they don’t inside. They become really good ‘noticers,’” Maggie Tuohy, the PTA’s garden liaison, said in the press release. They also “learn to be kind and respectful, not only to the creatures and things growing in the garden, but also to each other.”

Nature can be a boon to creativity as well. Students can “experience the musty, woodsy smell of the leaves in the fall and build a collection of spicy descriptive words to add to a writing piece,” Quiles said.

Photos Courtesy of Alison Poe, Jessica Auth, Ben Lowy, Anna Herbst and Marvi Lacar