Story by S.L. Hansen
TECUMSEH (SNR) – Last weekend, students, parents and other volunteers met on the east side of St. Andrew School in Tecumseh to start planting a new, sustainable outdoor classroom.
“We’re changing our schoolyard from having blue grass to having 45 different flowers, shrubs and trees,” explained Father Thomas Dunavan, pastor of Saint Andrew Parish and superintendent of the school.
The project is being funded by a Sustainable Schoolyard Partnership grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum.
“We were one of eight schools who received one,” said Father Dunavan, who studied natural resources in college before going to seminary.
For the application, he worked closely with one of the parish trustees, Howard McNiff. Now retired, McNiff has invaluable experience from his years with the Five Rivers RC&D, an organization dedicated to strengthening the communities, businesses, recreation opportunities, and tourism trade for eight counties in southeastern Nebraska.
Father Dunavan said that the outdoor classroom will provide teachers with a hands-on way to teach children about native plants, insects, wildlife, ecology and more.
“Anything that’s blooming is a magnet for butterflies, moths, bees, praying mantises, you name it,” he said. “And once we get a chance to get things established and labeled – just as the University of Nebraska would – you’ll be able to walk by at different times of year, and there will be splashes of color with all kinds of stuff there.”
Merri Johnson of Auburn was happy to serve as a volunteer for the project. As a member of the Nebraska Master Naturalist Program, she is coordinating the plant choices and volunteers to ensure that all the grant requirements are met. She also helped with planting.
“I think outdoor classrooms are a good idea because even though kids play outdoors, their play areas are focused on man-made things, like climbing units,” she said. “The outdoor classroom will focus their attention more on nature.”
The State Arboretum provided a plan for the outdoor classroom, but Father Dunavan also sought input from Grimm’s Gardens in Auburn.
“Most of the design we used is the state’s plan, but we did recommend six or eight different things of our own liking,” Father Dunavan said.
The school purchased as many plants as possible through Grimm’s Gardens. McNiff traveled to Kansas City to purchase several more items.
Christina Hoyt, community landscape specialist from the University of Nebraska brought even more plants with her on Saturday when she and her interns arrived to start laying out the outdoor classroom for planting. After a brief tutorial, she and her team joined students, parents and other volunteers for the fun part: the dirty work of digging holes and nestling roots into the welcoming earth.
“Fall is a great time to plant,” Hoyt said, noting that the majority of the shrubs and trees were scheduled to be planted Saturday, along with a few perennials. “In the spring we will add grasses and species that weren’t available now.”
Hoyt said the emphasis on native plants was key.
“A native oak tree can host up to 480 native butterflies, whereas many ornamental trees can just host a few. Our native bird populations need an abundance of native insects for food sources.”
Beneficial insects need leaf litter to get through the winter, she explained.
“This landscape will give children a great opportunity to observe and make connections among many concepts.”
The outdoor classroom will really take two or three years before everything is established, but Father Dunavan said the students and teachers are already excited about it. Teachers will receive resources from Project Learning Tree and Project WET to use as curriculum.
“We did a little bit of work outside with students last school year,” Father Dunavan said. “We had them sit outside and listen to what kind of birds they could hear, find different plants on the property.”
That gave the kids a starting point.
“My goal is to show them that within a year or maybe a little more, we should change that,” Father Dunavan stated.
“We want schoolchildren to have daily interactions with nature,” Hoyt added. “There is a lot of research that shows daily interaction with nature helps improve physical and mental health and increases test scores.”
This is just one of several projects that he has started to stretch the school’s budget by applying for grants that give the students unique educational opportunities.
“I’m kind of a grant guy,” Father Dunavan admitted.
A recent grant provided $3,000 for new textbooks, for example, and another purchased materials for bilingual families to use for improving reading at home. Father Dunavan is also hoping to get another grant from a major U.S. corporation to install a weather station to help kids learn about meteorology.
In the meantime, he’s eager to see how the outdoor classroom takes shape over the next year or two.
“I’m just really excited about what it’s going to be able to do,” he said. “To beautify our property as a parish and to help educate kids and our community to about some of the beautiful plants we have that are native species in this area.”