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Learning from a place full of living things

Landscaper transforms neglected courtyard into nature lab

Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick

Kenowa Hills — “Look! I found a stick,” Adilyn Nederhoed exclaimed while exploring the newly redone Living Lab at Zinser Elementary.

Rebecca Perry and her class of eager Kindergartners spent their morning on a nature walk in the outdoor courtyard, while observing living things around them. 

Olivia Cook shows the class a stick she found

“Do you see any living things?” Perry asked her students when they first entered the quiet and seemingly lifeless courtyard.

When the students all replied no, Perry reminded them that trees and plants are living things, even when you can’t see them moving or breathing. 

“Stop, my friends, and listen,” Perry said. “Can you hear the birds?”

The students were tasked to find 10 things to put into their brown paper bags to later take back to the classroom and record in their nature books. With assistance from Margaret Sicilian, her teacher assistant from Grand Valley State University, Perry instructed the students to spread out and find a spot to sit down to go through their bags after they found their items. 

“Do you want to sit next to me?” Olivia Cook asked her friend Adilyn. “Just don’t sit too close!”

Both girls found more than 10 items, so they took turns throwing crumpled leaves back on the ground. 

Liam Wierzbicki found a stick to add to his nature collection

A Living Learning Space 

The idea to re-landscape Zinser’s Living Lab came from Superintendent Gerald Hopkins and his fellow Comstock Park Rotary Club member, Dan Clark, owner of Clark Landscaping. According to Clark, the club is always looking for projects to give back to the community. When Hopkins suggested doing something in Kenowa Hills, Clark offered his services to help clean out and update the neglected courtyard at Zinser. 

“We wanted to turn the courtyard into a garden and learning space for the students,” Clark said. “I also included a number of rocks and plants native to the state of Michigan.”

Now, over 30 different species of plants can be found in the Living Lab, as well as a rock pond and waterfall where turtles make their home during the spring and summer months. 

Rebecca Perry helps Noah Evans-Keith sound out words to write in his nature book

Principal Ross Willick explained the school was in the process of renaming the space to incorporate the school’s motto, “Kids Who Care.”

“Our goal is to have a learning area for students to observe and engage with all kinds of living things, right in their own school,” Willick said. 

Willick also described their plans to continue adding interactive elements to the space, like bird feeders and a house for the family of ducks who lay their eggs every spring. Through Zinser’s Family Council, former students contributed their efforts to the project by painting yellow and black lighthouse decorations and constructing wooden benches. 

“We’ve also been working with the staff and students to provide spaces for mask breaks throughout the day,” Willck said. 

London Woodman grabs her towel to find a place to sit around the courtyard

Becoming Word Scientists

Back in the classroom, the kindergarten students transformed from nature explorers to word scientists. Perry taught her class how to stretch out the sounds of the words they wanted to write in their nature books.  

“There’s a crazy ‘a’ in the word ‘leaf’ and you don’t hear it,” Perry explained. “When sounding out your words, what do I always say?”

“Try your best and forget the rest,” the class replied in unison. 

After dumping the contents of their bags on their desks, the students used their senses to identify each object and practiced sounding out words like leaf, rock and pine cone. 

The students used markers and crayons to draw leaves, sticks and other items from nature in their books. Some went through a few coloring utensils to find the exact shade of brown to match their stick, or yellow and green for their leaves.

The lesson wrapped up when Perry announced it was time to start cleaning up and get ready for lunch, to which Mikey replied with a double-fist pump in the air.

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia and Kenowa Hills and is a roving reporter for Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio or email Alexis.


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  1. Mrs. Perry is the most wonderful, caring teacher I have ever had the pleasure of knowing! My Olivia loves her as more than just a teacher. The activities they plan and do are so much fun and interactive. Everyday there is a story about my daughter’s day at school!


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