The Chicago area didn’t get the piles of snow that much of the rest of the country did this week, to the disappointment of students and staff at Holy Family Academy.
“We’ve carved out a little cross-country trail for when we get snow, so the kids from first grade on up go cross-country skiing for gym,” Deb Atkins, director of school development, told CNA.
“So, we were cheering for snow, but it’s not happening,” she said. Just rain and cold temperatures.
Normally, the students at Holy Family Academy spend a lot of time outside. Located just outside of Chicago in Iverness, Ill., the school is situated on 20 acres of land that has recently been converted into an “outdoor classroom.”
With the help of the Lincoln, Neb.-based “Nature Explore”, a collaboration of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, Holy Family Academy became the first school in the Chicago area to have a certified outdoor classroom, which is incorporated into the daily life and learning of the students.
A retention area that used to flood all the time has been allowed to grow wild and return to its native prairie state. There’s a playground, athletic fields, a hill with a rope attached for climbing and rappelling, and a supply of sleds for snowy days.
Almost every class incorporates the outdoor space in some way, Atkins said.
“It really is hard to say where the outdoor classroom stops and the other learning starts,” she said.
Right now, some students are designing a squirrel-proof bird feeder, after the squirrels outsmarted what was a supposedly squirrel-proof bird feeder from the store.
There are several different types of gardens, including a rain garden — designed by third graders — with specifically selected native plants that filter out some of the pollutants that can seep into groundwater.
Atkins said she’s noticed how much more comfortable the students are out in nature since they’ve been using the outdoor classroom.
“It is getting back to nature, appreciating nature,” she said.
“When we first started, we had the little girlies who, if they saw a spider they would scream. Now they come up to me with a grasshopper in hand and say ‘Look what we found!’”
The care and appreciation the kids are learning for creation carries over into everything they do, Atkins said. For example, every year the students participate in a “Know Hunger” campaign, where they research hunger in their area and try to come up with some practical solutions.
The students were especially appalled by the amount of food waste in fields, grocery stores, and even at home, Atkins said, so the school decided to donate extra lunch food to a nearby shelter for elderly people.
“We’re caring for God’s creation, but we’re caring for each other at the same time,” Atkins said.
This upcoming Lent, the students are also going to be participating in “Waste-free Wednesdays,” during which they will learn more about recycling and alternatives to wasting food.
“It’s one of those things where if you start them early, it really becomes a habit,” Atkins said.
The outdoor space has also been a great way thing for students physically — it promotes exercise and even better attention spans in the classroom, Atkins said.
“I have a son who has ADHD, and the worst thing to happen to that guy is that he had to stay in for recess, because he could control himself better if he had physical activity,” she said. “So we don’t have that kind of consequence, that you need to stay in from recess, because it wasn’t working.”
“It really promotes independence and exploring, and physical activity,” she said. “These kids are lifting logs and poles, running around, and we have a hill with a rope attached … it really does get the kids moving.”
Much of the materials for the outdoor space have been made possible through donations, either monetary or plant-like in nature, Atkins said. Three alums of the K-8 school even came back to donate their Eagle Scout projects as part of the outdoor space.
Even before the established outdoor classroom, Holy Family Academy would send its middle school students on overnight outdoor education trips, Atkins said, so the idea of outdoor education and care for creation has always been important to them.
They were even more thrilled when they found out Pope Francis was on board, with the publication of his environmental encyclical, Laudato si'.
“We’ve had an emphasis on this for a while,” Atkins said, “and we just love that the Pope is promoting it, because that’s what we want to do.”