A long day at school can mean sitting at a desk and inside a classroom for hours.
But students at Toano Middle School will get a breath of fresh air with a new outdoor classroom.
“We wanted it to be a learning space for the kids where we could utilize science class, lifestyle classes and more,” said Mychael Willon, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Toano.
The outdoor classroom will have a garden, a number of seats and an overhead covering to protect students from the sun. Willon said that’s something he hopes will give even more learning opportunities and access for students.
The idea for the classroom came from Karen Rath after she started volunteering to improve the school’s garden. She said when she started working on the garden it was in disarray but after cleaning the area up she realized there was potential.
Elements of the original garden will still be around though, Willon said. He even donated a shed to be placed near the area to hold supplies.
Willon said they will try to grow plants that are native to the region or were essential to people in the colonial era to help students learn about history and science.
According to the National School Boards Association, outdoor learning makes students not only happier but helps them learn better as well. A study from the National Wildlife Association indicated that students showed improved scores in math, science, social studies and language arts all more than 60 percent when using environmental educational platforms.
But for students, parents and staff at Toano it’s more than just scores—it’s about creating a new learning experience.
“They’re going to learn a ton out there from their teachers,” Rath said. “But middle school is a tough time and if they can get out from the cinder block walls and into the sunshine, it’ll make a huge difference,” Rath said.
The area will be maintained entirely by volunteers of students, staff, parents and anyone else in the community who is interested.
Rath said she has had a lot of help from area businesses.
She said one local company, Williams Landscape and Design, has pledged to donate nearly $8,000 worth of work, tools and money to the project.
“We have the best community,” Rath said. “I think that people just need to be asked and they’re happy to do it for the kids.”
In addition, teachers have been applying for various grants, said Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for Williamsburg-James City County Schools.
Another source of funding is brick paving dedications, Willon said. Donors can pay $30 to have a brick embossed with their names or a business’s logo.
“It’s a legacy to memorialize their kids,” Willon said. “We want to show we were a part of it.”
Once students can use the classroom, he said teachers will be able to report on the success of the project by monitoring student engagement. That’s important, he said, because as a member of the Virginia Parent Teacher Association, he is hoping to bring the idea to other schools across the Peninsula eventually.
“We always want to replicate something successful at other schools,” he said. “But first we are just excited to see students use it at Toano.”
While the project is still in its infancy, once complete the area will have enough seating for an average class size. Willon expects the it to be finished by the end of the school year and ready for regular use by the fall.
“Kids will just get to breathe a breath of fresh air,” Rath said. “And something that simple does wonders.”