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From Soggy Schoolyard to Ecosystem

Rain Garden Just Beginning of Outdoor Learning Center


How does Dutton Elementary School affect the Plaster Creek watershed and eventually the Great Lakes? Students have only to look up at their school roof then down onto their new rain garden to explain.

The fewer pollutants that make their way to surrounding waterways the cleaner the water becomes, and that’s better for wildlife, they said. The rain garden, built last year, absorbs water that falls from the roof, protecting water quality by reducing stormwater runoff to nearby Plaster Creek.

Now that they have porous soil to nourish vegetation and beckon birds and butterflies to their rain garden, students can feel good about their contributions to the environment. But it’s just the beginning of big plans for an outdoor learning center, including more rain gardens, an amphitheater with tiered seating and a meandering nature trail. The multi-year effort includes lots of planning and future fundraising, all involving students who are excited about the possibilities.

“I like outside learning,” said fourth-grader Cameron Myers, who helped create the rain garden last year. “It’s more hands-on and you get to help the environment.”

Cameron joined other students on a recent afternoon in clearing armloads of leaves and debris from the rain garden and top of a rain barrel in an outside courtyard. It was simple maintenance in transforming their sometimes soggy schoolyard into an an ecosystem.

The school is in a perfect location to benefit the local environment, located near the headwaters — or source — of Plaster Creek, which flows to the Grand River and eventually Lake Michigan.

“Overall the focus is cleaning the waters of the Great Lakes,” said fourth-grade teacher Terrie Morrow, who initiated the project. “We have the extreme privilege of having the Great Lakes, the largest body of freshwater, in the world. With that privilege comes responsibility… We contribute to the good and bad that goes into the Great Lakes.”

Student Cameron Myershelps clear leaves from the rain garden
Student Cameron Myershelps clear leaves from the rain garden

A Far-Reaching Project

Students are taking the lead, planning the design and doing the dirty work in making the outdoor learning center a reality, Morrow said, and learning a lot along the way.

“I learned there can be plants that grow best in sun or shade, and not to pollute because it hurts the animals and the environment,” fourth-grader Laney Elles said.

The project pulled in a handful of local partners. Students worked with Groundswell, an organization focused on creating lifelong stewards of the Grand River watershed and the Great Lakes; and Plaster Creek Stewards, a collaboration of Calvin College faculty and staff, churches and community partners working to restore the Plaster Creek watershed. Students and parents also worked with Holland-based GMB architects on the design.

Five teachers and Principal Shawn Veitch attended a professional development on outdoor learning at Grand Valley State University, also involving Groundswell. That led to an outdoor learning day in September, with the entire school participating.

“The kids loved it,” said Veitch, who said completing the entire project will take several years. “We started to have a vision where our kids could really be a part of making the outdoor learning center.”

Seeds, Mulch and Public Relations

Each grade level now has a different task: second graders are focused on identifying what seeds to plant in the school’s greenhouse to transplant to the rain gardens. Third- and fifth-graders are charged with excavation and figuring out how much rocks and mulch is needed. Fourth-graders make sure information about the project gets to parents and the community.

Teachers are working to incorporate outdoor learning into all areas of the curriculum, said Morrow, who connects nature to science, math, reading, history and writing.

“It benefits the kids because if we teach them to appreciate the outdoors, research shows it’s better for their mind, body and soul,” Morrow said. “If they appreciate and respect the outdoors they are protecting it for their own futures.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She 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, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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