North Euless Elementary joins outdoor learning movement

Posted Monday, Jun. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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For years, art teacher Scott Matula shook his head over a 9,000-square-foot courtyard at North Euless Elementary School that did nothing but grow St. Augustine grass around one lonely tree.

“It was a case of staring out my window and wondering: ‘What would happen if ...,’” he said.

What if the courtyard became a classroom without a ceiling, if it was filled with plants that many of the students never would see outside of a magazine or book, if a waterfall in one corner fed a stream that meandered several yards and ran into a shallow pond, and if a learning environment was created that would enhance students’ grasp of every subject from reading to writing to arithmetic?

Principal Melissa Meadows had been looking for ways other than recess to get students outdoors, and Matula’s musings fit the bill. Three years later, the North Euless Outdoor Learning Area (NEOLA) was finished, and the school joined the growing list of campuses connected with the No Child Left Inside Movement.

Born from a concept introduced by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods , the movement is a response to “concern about the growing disconnect between people in cities and nature,” said Tom Harvey, a spokesman for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Louv’s book “landed like a match in a woodpile,” Harvey said. “There already was an awareness of issues with the couch potato generation, and it galvanized the community, formal and informal educators, the health industry and pediatricians concerned about childhood obesity.”

In Texas, Louv’s book ignited the Children in Nature movement, said Nancy Herron, a leader in the Texas Natural Resource/Environmental Literacy Plan. Problems like childhood depression, obesity and difficulty focusing in school were being linked to too much time under roofs.

“We’re seeing a lot of research that children are no longer running around outside,” Herron said. “We’re finding that when they play and learn outside, the kids are healthier physically and mentally, they do better in school, they have better self-esteem and discipline, they’re better problem solvers, there’s just a long list of benefits.”

The state organization is a close cousin to Children And Nature, which Herron said has grown to be an international movement.

One of the outgrowths of the movement is the No Child Left Inside Act, which was first introduced to the U.S. House in 2009 by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md. Designed to strengthen the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind), it would help train teachers to use local environments as extended classrooms for environmental education, and integrate the field into core subjects, Herron said.

The legislation has not yet passed.

“If it passes, and if Texas wants to participate, it would be another source of funding” for efforts like NEOLA, she said. “I think it’s a great investment in these kids’ futures. It really fosters creativity and focus in the classroom.”

There’s no way to estimate the investment into NEOLA in terms of dollars, Meadows said. One of her earliest thoughts on the project was that it would be expensive and labor intensive, and out of the question for funding through the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district.

Meadows found funding through grants and donations. And well more than 100 teachers and parents, Euless community residents and businesspeople, and even city employees volunteered their labor.

Within NEOLA, that once-lonely tree spreads shade across a granite trail that winds past a dogwood, a desert willow, a huge yucca plant, a cypress and a red oak. An awning shades benches in one corner, where kids can listen to a teacher, present reports of their own, recite Shakespeare, or just sit and ponder a raised bed where zucchinis, cucumbers and other vegetables grow.

There are at least 46 other schools in Tarrant County that have similar learning areas, said Sarah Geer, spokeswoman for Real School Gardens, an organization that coordinates construction and helps arrange funding for a variety of the spaces.

Those are the kinds of places students will recall as “special” when they’re grown up, and Herron said that’s the way it should be.

“For a kid to say his special place is in front of a computer screen, we don’t think that’s doing him justice,” she said.

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620 Twitter: @fwstevans

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