Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange Towns

PHOTOS: Grand Opening for Seth Boyden Outdoor Classroom Sept. 16

Outdoor Learning Center under construction in May 2016.
Outdoor Learning Center under construction in May 2016.

In May of this year, Village Green checked in on the progress of construction in Seth Boyden Elementary’s schoolyard. Contractors and some 200 volunteers were steadily transforming a large patch of grass into an open-air classroom, performance circle, art nook and large habitat garden.

Now, the work is complete, and the school is inviting the public to join Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and South Orange-Maplewood Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos at the grand opening ceremony on Friday, September 16 at 9 a.m.

The classroom and surrounding spaces are the culmination of a two-decade-long initiative to create an Outdoor Learning Center in the sprawling backyard of Seth Boyden School. Known as the OLC, the complex originated in the mid-1990s with Strawberry Fields, a long series of raised-bed vegetable patches where students today still grow their own produce. Intermediate phases produced three playground structures, a paved track and parcourse equipment.

The performance circle (foreground), art circle with mist sprayer (middle ground), and habitat garden (back). The brick apron, with inscriptions from donors, provides the transition to the classroom (left, partial view).
The performance circle (foreground), art circle with mist sprayer (middle ground), and habitat garden (back). The brick apron, with inscriptions from donors, provides the transition to the classroom (left, partial view).

The new components center on a stone-paved circle with weatherproof tables and a massive chalkboard on wooden supports. The space is large enough to accommodate a class, either seated on portable stools or engaged in kinetic learning. In two smaller adjoining circles, students can work on art projects and practice public speaking to an audience seated on stone blocks. A mist sprayer – nicknamed the “Mister Quiles” after recently retired principal Mark Quiles – is designed to offer relief on hot days. Trees, shrubs, flowers and grass-covered berms enfold all three areas. Nearby, in the habitat garden, a gravel path wanders amongst native plantings soon to be labeled by a Story Trail.

The costs of the new components — the classroom, habitat garden and arboretum — total $135,000, paid for by a combination of grants and fundraising.

Parent architect Huzefa Irfani produced the original designs, part of a larger collaboration with the Natural Learning Institute of North Carolina State University. When funds ran short, local landscape architect William Scerbo translated this plan for a built structure into a natural environment. Grants came from green nonprofit Sustainable Jersey, the Maplewood and South Orange Open Space Trust Funds, the Rotary Club, Lowe’s, Target and Home Depot.

Evergreen Landscaping of Butler did the heaviest jobs. Glenn’s Landscaping of Maplewood donated a day of labor and equipment. Apple and Google furnished volunteers.

Most of the work, though, was done by the scores of Seth Boyden families and other local supporters who joined evening and weekend sessions to dig, plant, mulch, water and even run an irrigation system.

Myriad studies demonstrate that “children’s social, psychological, academic and physical health [are all] positively impacted when they have daily contact with nature” (Natural Learning Initiative 2012). Seth Boyden PTA garden liaison Maggie Tuohy agrees: “Being outdoors engages a child’s entire being,” she said. “They internalize information differently.”

New principal Damion Frye plans for each Seth Boyden class to use the open-air classroom and other outdoor learning areas on a regular basis. When school is not in session, moreover, the public is welcome to visit and enjoy the OLC.

Click on photos to enlarge:

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