District Plans to Transform Undeveloped Space Into Outdoor Learning Lab

Lee Middle School eighth-grade teacher Vlad Borza hopes to one day see the long-abused Plaster Creek flourishing with wildlife, such as nesting turtles and migrating salmon.

He and other Godfrey-Lee Public Schools administrators are taking steps to involve students in the process of cleaning up the waterway, which has suffered from decades of pollution. Creating the Happy Hollow Living Learning Lab along the creek will expose students to the biodiversity in their own area and the need to preserve and improve it, he said.

“I’m looking forward to letting them recreate this area and come back someday with their children and say, ‘I learned about biodiversity that is here,'” Borza said. “I hope it creates a positive outlook on the creek that has been a dumping ground for so long.”

Involving students in creek-improvement efforts is just one of many possibilities at Happy Hollow, where teachers hope learning outdoors will soon be a regular part of the curriculum. Teachers are already brainstorming myriad environmental lessons that involve science, math, writing and history on the half-mile long stretch along Plaster Creek.

The district plans to lease the property from Consumers Energy and acquire space from GRL Properties, businesses that abut the undeveloped land between Burton Street and Chicago Drive. Besides Consumers, planning partners include the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Blandford Nature Center, Calvin College, General Motors, and the City of Wyoming.

The area, on the northeast edge of the one square-mile district, was once a place where youngsters played, said Superintendent David Britten, who grew up in the area.

“It earned its nickname, Happy Hollow, due to the swamps and woods that once dominated most of the area near and where today’s Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center (961 Joosten St. SW) sits,” Britten explained. “It was a great place for us kids to play and explore.”

Many Chances for Learning

Teachers will begin using the space with students this spring.

Workshops could focus on bird and wildlife identification, invasive species identification and removal, and mapping and exploring the space. Future plans include adding interpretive signs and a learning area with tree-stump seating. The long-term plan is to create a barrier-free path to connect with the bike trails located north and south of the land.

The hope is for the lab’s development to become a community-wide project involving churches, business and civic groups.

Teachers said they are excited about the opportunity. Godfrey-Lee Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Tom Weir said he wants his students to understand that nature isn’t something out of their reach.

“I want to get the kids aware that they don’t have to go that far to see nature,” he said. “They can experience it and make a difference in their surroundings.”

Charlene Walsh, Early Education Center second-grade teacher, said she looks forward to getting her students out to the site.

“It’s about hands-on exploration and nature, getting children out, feeling, smelling and touching nature, getting them into the environment and being aware of their surroundings,” she said.

CONNECT

Plaster Creek Needs

Blandford Nature Center

WMEAC

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2012. Read Erin's full bio

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