KOOTENAI — Spending time in nature can provide a number of benefits for children and adults, from stress relief to improved mental well-being and concentration.
For that reason, Kootenai Elementary is taking learning to the outdoors. Through a partnership with Kaniksu Land Trust, the 10 undeveloped acres adjacent to the school was officially dedicated as a “Learning Landscape” on Tuesday.
“This is really a magical piece of land,” said Dave Kretzschmar, KLT education director, who has been instrumental in implementing the outdoor classroom. “... The fact that it is so close to the school is what makes it so nice, because the potential out here is amazing.”
When KLT partnered with Kootenai to develop the concept, the idea was to provide a place where teachers could “easily” get to on a regular basis to provide outdoor experiential learning, said Regan Plumb, interim executive director and conservation director for KLT. There is a land trust in California, Plumb said, that has identified the three biggest barriers that keep teachers from taking their students outside on a regular basis. Those barriers include having a property within a 10-minute walk from school, signage that directly connects the property to the school to give students and staff a feeling of ownership, and a seating area for students where teachers can provide instruction.
“So those are our first three priorities in providing this experience and trying to develop those, and I think we are doing a pretty nice job,” Plumb said. “We just get to embellish with all the fun details.”
For Tuesday’s dedication, three Kootenai fifth-graders — Kamren Ziarnick, Kale Wright and Gage Kunsky — helped Kretzschmar install the new sign at the trailhead. They did design it after all, as the winners of the school’s sign design contest.
All of the students are excited about the outdoor classroom, said Kootenai principal Kelli Knowles.
“The kids are excited about trying to identify what’s out there,” Knowles said. “That’s what they want to do is know what they are looking at, so it’s cool because they are kind of driving it.”
Knowles said they are going to get some local experts out there to teach students and staff how to identify the trees and other life on the property. The property has a variety of wildlife and foliage, including apple trees and cherry trees. There is also wetland areas, which can be used for instructional purposes.
After the project got started last year, a local resident donated a wood chipper to the school. Brush that had been piled up by the district’s maintenance crew was chipped up, and then the students took turns going out with buckets to spread the chips and build a trail around the property. A paved path runs through the property as well, connecting Second Avenue to Brittany Loop to the north.
The school got two cement benches through a Fuel Up to Play 60 grant. Knowles said she wrote a grant to Panhandle Alliance for Education, with the goal of adding some long benches for a teaching area, as well as a butterfly garden and native plants that will attract bugs, which the students can then study. Kretzschmar built three low wooden benches at the south end of the property as the start of an area for the kindergarten and first-grade classes, so the teachers won’t have to wander too far from school with the little ones.
As the trail is further developed, the property will become part of the Kootenai Elementary jogging club’s morning routine. Knowles said she plans to write a grant for snowshoes in the future, so they can use the landscape in the winter as well.
For KLT, this project is just the beginning.
“This is going to be the first of many Learning Landscapes around Bonner County,” Kretzschmar said.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.