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Hands on Learning

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by Kary Ellen Berger

Imagine an elementary school student sharing their day with, “We played on the playground, swinging, sliding, playing with chickens….” Wait, chickens? St. Gertrude School in Madeira is home to an outdoor classroom – complete with chickens – which is used by all grade levels.

“Around 2014, Sister Marie Noelle, a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia, started the outdoor classroom with the introduction of hatching chickens from eggs and then having the second graders care for the chickens,” said Jeff Hileman, a teacher and the STEM Coordinator at St. Gertrude. “Every year since then, we have hatched new eggs with each second grade class.”

“Years later, the students remember how many chickens they’ve hatched, holding and playing with them in the classroom, what their names were, and hatching day where they all wear yellow and make fun chicken hats to wear,” Hileman said.

A trail leads to the classroom near a wooded area. The original chicken coop has been renovated over the years, “including our current version that was an Eagle Scout project for a former St. Gertrude School student,” Hileman said. A new “mobile coop” enables chickens to be outside with students on the playground.

And St. Gertrude’s hands-on learning offers more than chickens. “[There is] an official monarch butterfly garden planted by Kayrn Dickman, a St. Gertrude School teacher,” said Hileman. “Students hatch monarch eggs in first grade and set them free out by the garden. [There is also] an outdoor seating area inside of a small wooded area to hold outdoor class, apple trees that unfortunately have yet to provide fruit, and a walking rosary that students use with our principal, Sister Maria Christi, when the weather is nice.”

Hileman noted that St. Gertrude offers several STEM programs such as LEGO Robotics, coding and more, which emphasize the school’s philosophy of promoting hands-on learning.

“It creates engagement that can lead to lifelong learning and create new hobbies and passions,” said Hileman. “Giving students an opportunity to work with chickens can lead them to care for their own pets or raise their own flock. Growing lettuce and other vegetables can lead students to want to build their own garden and grow their own food. Currently, I’ve been working with our third graders doing hydroponics to grow basil and eventually create our own pesto sauce from this basil. This could encourage a third grader to become more interested in cooking and baking. The outdoor classroom is a wonderful tool to help invigorate our students to become lifelong learners.”

When school is not session, Hileman said parents pitch in and help: “None of this would even be remotely possible without the support of our school parents,” said Hileman. “They are the ones who help keep the chickens fed over breaks and water the garden during the summer. Without their support there would be no outdoor classroom to go to.”

The outdoor classroom illustrates that God’s natural beauty is found in even the most unexpected places.

“It has been said that nature is the art of God,” said Hileman. “Being able to be out in the outdoor classroom allows students to explore, observe, reflect and appreciate the natural order that God has created. Working in and with nature allows students to be part of His creation, to wonder in awe at what He has created and reflect on the beauty of it, and to appreciate the gift of nature.”

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