Outdoor classes are growing in Haddonfield

Maggie Strucker, a naturalist with Bowan’s Hill Wildflower Preserve of New Hope, Pa., works with Nicole Price, Teresa Mignatti and Natalie Badran of Christ the King School, Haddonfield, as they do preliminary work for developing a “Pocket Meadow” outside the school building. The school received a grant from the preserve to develop outdoor learning spaces.
Fourth and fifth grade students hold up their greenery for Strucker. Below, the children work on their Pocket Meadow site outside the school. The grounds already include a pond, sanctuary and garden.
Photos by Debbie Troy

If you see students outside, with their feet up and reading a book, they are not skipping class. They are using one of the outdoor classrooms at Christ the King Regional School in Haddonfield. Recently, the school was awarded a grant from Bowan’s Hill Wildflower Preserve of New Hope, Pa.

Maggie Strucker, a naturalist for the preserve, brought the foundational supplies for the meadow, and she engaged the fourth and fifth grades with instruction on planting their Pocket Meadow.

Strucker said, “We identified Christ the King Regional School as a good candidate for this program because of the successful gardens that they have already cultivated, and because of their STEM teacher, Mr. John Emmons, who was experienced in developing outdoor learning spaces.”

Outdoor education at Christ the King is well planned. On the southern side of the school, there is a pond and sanctuary that is frequented by the second grade students as a place to share faith with their prayer buddies. To the north is a garden, where each class cares for their plot of land. The latest development is the installation of the Pocket Meadow, just west of the garden.

Bowan’s Hill Wildflower Preserve has made this possible for a handful of schools and libraries as well as some corporate spaces. Their aim is to take an underutilized plot of land and transform it.

The plot of land at CKRS was what Emmons, CKRS STEM teacher, referred to as a “dumping ground for invasive species”; in other words, it didn’t contain organisms that were complimentary to each other or inviting for bees and butterflies. Because of the ecologically balanced installation in this space, the Pocket Meadow at Christ the King will be a part of what will likely develop into an entire campus of outdoor learning spaces.

Emmons has done this before. In 2012, he was recognized with a leadership award given by Sustainable Princeton. Recipients of this award had distinguished themselves as some of the best and greenest residents in the area. Emmons notes that “the students have hands-on lessons in the gardens throughout the year.”

Emmons uses the gardens extensively and was a driving force in the creation of these outdoor classrooms in the Princeton area. There, he successfully recruited elementary school parents, high school students and members of the Princeton University community in a large scale effort that students used for education in data collection, insect study and sustainable land maintenance.

Emmons says that, “while the gardens obviously make the area more attractive, the real learning opportunity for the students comes with the emphasis on the process. First, the students measured and mapped the area. Then, they researched and found the type of plants that were both native to New Jersey, and would grow well with the light and other characteristics of their space. Finally, they came up with a strategy to develop the area.”

Understanding how to work through these steps in a process is a skill that the students will use in all of their subject areas.