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Outdoor learning opportunities grow with new structure 

Photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick 

Byron Center — In the wetlands behind Countryside Elementary, a fourth-grader yelled, “Eww, I’ve got apple guts on my shoe!”

Dan Volkers’ students were on the hunt for seeds, and discovered they could be found inside apples growing in a tree just out of reach.

Fourth-grader Ethan Vogt holds his new friend, Jerry the caterpillar

Soon, rain boots and tennis shoes stomped on fallen, rotten apples to retrieve the seeds as one of four needed for their science lesson.

After observing plants and digging through fruit like scientists, the students return to the new outdoor learning pavilion to continue learning about the life cycle of plants.

The 32-by-24-foot structure with a steel roof and concrete flooring houses picnic tables and plenty of space for instructional time. Volkers said more seating and tables will be added as funding is acquired. 

The pavilion is the newest enhancement to the school’s natural outdoor learning environment. Volkers’ students get a front-row seat to view the pavilion, right outside their classroom window.

In addition to finding seeds in nature, the fourth-graders chose which seeds they wanted to plant using seed starters and water in a small paper cup. Kale and chives were more popular choices than spinach or arugula.

“It’s so peaceful outside,” Rhys Poorman said. “I’m better at concentrating outside than I am when we’re in the classroom.”

Added Naomi Overbeek, “The fresh air is the best part of being outside.”

From left, fourth-graders Violet Cook and Naomi Overbeek watch their seed starter grow in water, right before their eyes


Fourth-grade teacher Dan Volkers leads a science lesson in the new outdoor learning pavilion at Countryside Elementary


Dan Volkers’ fourth-graders have their science lesson outside in the learning pavilion


Fourth-grader Ryce Nichols looks for four seeds outdoors near the learning pavilion during his science class


Fourth-grader Maggie Sullivan looks for seeds in an apple


Dan Volkers points out different vegetable seeds to his fourth-graders


From left, fourth-graders Logan Post, Maggie Sullivan and Lauren Conlon plant their radish seeds


From left, Rhys Poorman, Grayson Carpenter and Ryce Nichols show off their newly planted green onion seeds
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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. 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, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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