EULESS -- A few straw-colored weeds had taken root in an area outside North Euless Elementary School.
Looking out his classroom window, art teacher Scott Matula envisioned something far more useful for the 9,000-square-foot space.
Nearly two years later, the North Euless Outdoor Learning Area is nearing completion.
"Our students are stuck here in the middle of suburbia," Matula said. "I want them to experience a little bit of the real outdoors, to walk outside and see native plants and trees and smell fresh air."
The space will include a waterfall emptying into a pond flanked by boulders where students can sit. A raised garden will grow beans, vegetables or native plants.
Dogwood trees and loblolly pines will grow in the small plot designated "East Texas." A few feet away, mesquite, vitex and Chinese pistache trees will grow in "West Texas." Frogs and turtles will be free to scamper about.
In the corner, an awning-covered classroom will have chairs and a whiteboard for instruction.
The outdoor learning area, called NEOLA by the school, will focus on environmental education and teach cross-disciplinary lessons. Science students, for example, could run experiments on soil; math students could measure and chart the growth of different plant species; and art classes could draw or paint their surroundings.
"So often, we tell our students about something," Principal Melissa Meadows said. "Now they will be able to see and touch and smell. We're going beyond our classroom walls."
With the help of teachers, Matula raised about $75,000 in donations and goods. Matula's brother, David, a landscape architect with Waterfalls Over Texas, donated his time as the contractor. TXU Energy provided the trees, and B&S Fence Co. built the fencing.
The school received grants and donations from Lowe's, the city of Euless and several others.
Over the weekend, students, parents and teachers laid soil and planted trees to prepare for classes that are expected to start in the spring. Community groups and other schools will be invited to use the space, too.
"This is an amazing way to get students outside and learning, rather than staring at the computer screen all day," Jarrett Trusty, whose two children attend North Euless Elementary, said as he hauled a wheelbarrow of acidic soil to the East Texas plot.
Third-grader Kylie Smith plans to donate Shelley the turtle, whom she caught at home. She said she is excited to learn about the various critters that will call this place home.
Spending time outside helps students learn to solve problems and think critically, Matula said.
"With video games and TV and iPhones, kids lose their touch with this part of the world," he said. "This will give them a small taste of the outdoors, even if we're just at school."