Teaching among the trees

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The school has an outdoor classroom program located on more than three forested acres of school land, threaded by trails. The program has existed for almost 10 years and consists of an amphitheater in a cleared area with benches and a podium. In the amphitheater, teachers from any grade can instruct students in environmental studies or hold regular class sessions.

Sometimes the classroom is used by physical-education classes to learn orienteering, in which students use a compass to get through the woods.

Besides academic studies, Opstad students also help with forest and outdoor classroom maintenance. Each grade level has its own portion of the trail that needs to be cleared of debris, trash and blackberries.

"We're very fortunate that we have such an area we can take care of and have for outdoor education and learning about our native flora and fauna with environmental studies," said Opstad Principal John Jester.

Fifth-grade teacher Ileen O'Leary is in charge of the school's forest committee, which oversees funding, curriculum development and staff training for the outdoor classroom. She has written several grants over the years to fund the project, and with her class she uses the outdoor area for art, science, language arts and reading.

"[The students] love going out there," she said. "They love the fact that they can go on trails, that they can watch trees grow and they love the chance to be outside of the walls of the regular classroom. They're very proud when they can start identifying the trees around them, and there's something really powerful about having that knowledge."

O'Leary added that students learn about forest stewardship, and taking care of the environment in general.

"It's a good place to talk about what makes up our atmosphere, what causes global warming. It starts meaning a lot more when it's sitting right next to them," she said. "It's good for them to see what a natural forest would look like, and it's right on-site, so we don't have to walk anywhere or get on a bus for a field trip."

Besides studying both deciduous and evergreen trees, students examine other aspects of nature, such as nearby anthills and ferns. Opstad students also have the benefit of learning in a second-growth forest, which shows the role each level of the forest - like the canopy - plays in the surrounding environment.

With some help from Weyerhaeuser, the school will soon add another outdoor classroom area, so two student groups can be outside at once. The second classroom will also feature an amphitheater, but will sit under the forest canopy.

In addition to the benches, part of the $1,500 grant received from Weyerhaeuser earlier this year was used to purchase fir and ornamental trees that were planted for Earth Day. The grant was also used for markers, clipboards and other supplies to make the outdoor classroom complete.

"Weyerhaeuser has been really diligent in doing some local things, not only providing grant money, but education for teachers and for classrooms," O'Leary said.

Over the years, the Washington Conservation Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers have rebuilt benches and performed other maintenance and improvement tasks in the forested area. Each year, Eagle Scout groups clear trails and complete other projects to help with the classroom. Horticulture classes at Mount Si High School have planted foliage, restored trails and built bridges.

Opstad still needs volunteers to build the platform benches for its second outdoor classroom. Groups and organizations can also volunteer to speed up the work, O'Leary said. To volunteer for bench building, call O'Leary or Jester at (425) 831-8347.

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