Sustainable Jersey: Taking the classroom outside to raise-up extra-ordinary kids

June 16, 2016


Seth Boyden Elementary School Outdoor Learning Center Brings a Community Together

What does it take to transform a good idea into an inspiring project? At Sustainable Jersey, I’m lucky to work with towns and schools that have crossed this threshold.

SJJune1The Seth Boyden Elementary School Outdoor Learning Center is a great example of the hard work, time and planning it takes to create a successful project and the tremendous rewards that come with the effort.

Over a decade ago, a group of inspired parents who believed in outdoor learning lobbied and raised funds to transform Seth Boyden Elementary School’s back yard into an outdoor learning space. Located in the most densely developed neighborhood of the South Orange and Maplewood School District, many of the students have limited access to nature.

Seth Boyden School uses a multiple-intelligence approach to learning and an Outdoor Learning Center seemed like a perfect way to enhance this learning concept. A wealth of studies point to the positive effects of outdoor learning on academic achievement and classroom behavior. Better performances in reading, writing, math, science and social studies and reduced discipline problems and increased enthusiasm for learning are all noted benefits.

Collaborative planning process creates vision and goals

Over the years, the PTA sought professional expertise and facilitated a collaborative process to create a vision, goals and strategies that incorporated input from parents, district staff, teachers and community members. The school is lucky to have a reserve of impressive parents. Seth Boyden parent, Lorraine Gibbons, the founder of Garden State Urban Farms, was an original member of the group that helped create momentum for the project, as well as architect Huzefa Irfani who developed the framework and design parameters for the classroom.

The Outdoor Learning Center went through several development stages and was realized under the leadership of many PTA presidents and Outdoor Learning Center Committee Chairs. Parents and teachers first met with planners from the Natural Learning Initiative of North Carolina University and developed a Master Plan to transform the school yard.

Creative fundraising ranges from bricks to Project Runway’s Tim Gunn

Continual and creative fundraising was necessary to keep the project alive; everything from a buy-a-brick campaign and a spare change fundraiser to auctions, parties and a Seth Boyden Speaker series that included a sold-out event with “This American Life” star Ira Glass and company, as well as one with Project Runway’s Tim Gunn. Fundraising continues today and opportunities are listed on the Outdoor Learning Center page.

Evolving the Outdoor Learning Center from built structure to natural elements

In 2015, the PTA had raised nearly $100,000 for the largest and most expensive piece of the plan: the Outdoor Classroom. With the help of the South Orange and Maplewood School District an RFP for construction bids was released. Unfortunately, the bids came back with proposed budgets that were double and triple the amount of funds available. The planning committee was at a loss.

“This is when I joined the PTA,” said Seth Boyden parent, Matthias Ebinger. Luckily, Matthias is a skilled project management professional and visiting assistant professor at the Pratt Institute who is familiar with the construction and bid processes. After hearing about the setback he agreed to get involved.

With Matthias’ help, the group engaged William Scerbo, a renowned local landscape architect and former Rutgers University professor, to move the project forward.

“We were lucky to have Bill Scerbo join the project,” Matthias said. “He has a remarkable talent for creating beautiful spaces that bring communities together, and for aligning project scope with available funds.”

Bill went back to the plans and took the complexity out of the project. He replaced built structure with natural landscaping features that achieved the same goals. The next bid process resulted in a contract award to Evergreen Landscaping, a New Jersey-based landscaping firm, which is currently in the process of turning the project into a reality.


Sustainable Jersey for Schools Certification and Small Grant

With motivation from the Outdoor Learning Center, Seth Boyden Elementary School formed a green team, registered with Sustainable Jersey for Schools and began work on a certification application. The school completed an energy audit, held a green fair, launched a kids’ green challenge and completed many other sustainability actions.

In late 2015, just as plans for the revamped classroom were taking shape, Seth Boyden Elementary School was awarded a $10,000 Sustainable Jersey for Schools grant from the PSEG Foundation; this allowed the Outdoor Learning Committee to move on to another phase of the master plan, one that provided for the creation of nature story trails and a re-planting of the school’s neglected and overgrown habitat garden.

“Receiving the grant from Sustainable Jersey for Schools gave us the momentum we needed to get the Outdoor Learning Center moving,” said Tia Swanson, a past PTA President and the current Outdoor Learning Center Co-Chair. “The kids are truly shining through their contributions to this project. This is what Seth Boyden is all about, finding the gifts that we all have and encouraging their growth.”

The nature story trails will lead students on walks of discovery through the garden and the entire backyard, helping them learn to identify species in the garden, as well as to discover the animals and insects that call the patch home. The group hopes that the local residents and community will use the garden as well.

Three intersecting circles: classroom, breakout area and art nook

Construction is nearly complete on the classroom and the habitat garden, as well as a native arboretum. The classroom was built with sustainable materials and designed for multiple uses. It has three intersecting circles: there is a classroom circle for teaching and learning complete with tables, chairs and blackboard, an improvisation nook or breakout area for students to work on their own in small groups or in performances and a third circle which is an art nook with a floor for chalk drawings surrounded by bird, bat and butterfly houses and instructional panels. A large sundial will cast shadows throughout the day, helping children understand the relationship of the position of the sun to the passing of time.

The classroom will have electricity and a PA system. A misting system for kids to get cool on hot days was added at the principal’s suggestion. It will be informally called the “Mister Quiles” after Principal Mark Quiles who advocated for the project at many meetings where the idea of the Outdoor Learning Center was said to be an unattainable fantasy.


The slate for the outdoor blackboard was secured by Tia Swanson who drove four hours during a wintry day to retrieve the slate slab in Pennsylvania after the group bought it on EBay. The community volunteer effort has been tremendous; it has even brought out residents that have no association with the school.

“Today I had the wonderful opportunity to help the Seth Boyden Outdoor Learning Center come to life in a small way,” one volunteer said. “It was my first time planting. Thank you, Seth Boyden Outdoor team and Kevin Kraft for the opportunity. You are making the world a better place at Seth Boyden Demonstration School.”

To keep costs down, all of the work that does not require specific technical skill has been done by volunteers. Over 200 volunteers who include students, faculty, parents and local residents have planted 300 plants. Everything from blueberry bushes to hollies and perennial ferns have been put in the ground.

Forty-one trees were planted to create a natural canopy including scarlet oak, sycamore, tulip and pink dogwood. The students have been busy painting butterfly, bird, bat and insect houses for the area. In addition to many donations from the larger school community, the project received grants from the Open Space Trusts of Maplewood/South Orange Townships.

The local business community also contributed generously: Glenn’s Landscaping donated one day of their crew and equipment to plant trees. Woolley Home Solution sponsored the sundial. Home Depot contributed some of the construction material and Lowes stepped up with a “tool box” grant, to just name a few.

Linking the Outdoor Learning Center to curriculum

As for next steps, the PTA and school will turn their attention to integrating the Outdoor Learning Center into a program already established at the school that links the Strawberry Fields Garden to the curriculum. The Seth Boyden PTA has funded a paid garden position for 2.5 years that is filled by Maggie Tuohy, a certified public school teacher with expertise in these areas.

By providing an on-site naturalist, the PTA made it easier for busy teachers who may not be gardening experts to feel comfortable going outside. Maggie partners with the teachers, bringing expertise and interactive lessons. The development of the Outdoor Learning Center was also used as a learning experience. For example, the colorful prints of Bill Scerbo’s landscape drawings and Matthias Ebinger’s architectural drawings were put on display in the school hallways.

This project, like so many across New Jersey championed by green teams, embodies the promise of a more sustainable future. The Seth Boyden Outdoor Learning Center promotions cite a saying that sums it up: “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”

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Donna Drewes
Donna Drewes

Donna Drewes is one of the principals that founded and now co-directs Sustainable Jersey. She is a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog.

All Photos are Courtesy Kevin Kraft