It is a beautiful North Vancouver day. The sun is shining, the weather is warm and students at Highlands are fully engaged with grade 4 teacher, Jennifer Sherlock, observing the bark of a western red cedar tree – a lesson that is not being taught inside a typical classroom, but instead being instructed outside in the brand new outdoor learning space at Highlands Elementary School.
"For those students who have high stress or anxiety, being outside in nature provides the 'natural' calming environment for our state of mind that optimizes learning. Also, for those students with high energy needs, being outside will eliminate sitting at a desk for extended lengths of time," explains Sherlock, adding that much of the learning can be taken outside. "There are many connections between the curriculum and nature, in addition to more opportunities for the tactile learners to engage in hands-on learning."
The new outdoor learning space is designed to meet a diversity of student and teacher needs. The multi-use space includes various areas that can accommodate full classes, yet also serve as play spaces, art spaces, small group seating nooks, and quiet reflection areas. There is a rock spiral section that fits up to 30 students, a log area that also fits 30, smaller log and rock breakout nooks, a dry riverbed play space, a river's edge play and learning space that also supports proper drainage from the gravel field, and a cedar teaching shelter.
"Everything here serves multiple purposes - for playing, learning and growing," explains Jackie Hoffer, designer of the outdoor learning space and parent of a student at Highlands Elementary.
The notion behind the project is to enhance student learning and wellbeing by connecting students to the outdoors for both their classroom work and unstructured playtime. Prior to the construction of the project, there was a lack of natural green space at the school. When Highlands Elementary School was rebuilt in 2009 the school was relocated from one side of the property to the other, which resulted in a loss of green space at the school. Students were still happy playing outdoors but they had to be extra creative, drawing designs in the gravel field and playing with rocks, branches and other natural elements they brought from home.
"Students were excited about being outdoors and embracing nature as they played, but the outdoor space at the school did not accommodate playing in nature," says Tracey Lebedovich, parent and lead project organizer for the Highlands Elementary Parent Advisory Council.
The school PAC was instrumental in bringing this project to fruition. It was the parents who spearheaded the project – a project they embarked on roughly two years ago.
"We just felt that playing in nature is where kids should be," says Lebedovich.
Teachers, staff and administration at the school were quick to jump on board in support of the project. A series of brainstorming sessions resulted in a design that would meet both educational learning and play-based learning for students.
"There are both physical and mental health benefits for students. The kinesthetic learners benefit from an outdoor learning environment because there's generally more movement. Being in nature also allows for student self-regulation, which prepares them for learning," explains Sherlock.
"It's also their space to make their own," adds Lebedovich. "It's nice to have unstructured learning and play time too."
According to parents and school staff, students at the school have taken to the outdoor learning space as if it was always there – they are authentically enjoying the space. The success of the project is credited not only to parents and staff at the school, but also to the support of many community organizations.
The organizing committee of the Highlands Elementary School outdoor learning space gives a heartfelt thank you to the following:
Principal Todd Henderson
Teachers Deborah Holliday and Jennifer Sherlock
North Vancouver School District #44
Project consultation & management:
Highlands Natural Playground Committee
Project design donated by:
Platinum Corporate Donor – Grosvenor
Bronze Corporate Donor – Coast Capital Savings
Local North Shore businesses that donated silent auction items
Tree Canada (Northbridge Financial)
Toyota Evergreen (North Shore Auto Mall Toyota)
TD Friends of the Environment
Canadian Wildlife Federation - Go Wild
Pacific Salmon Foundation
Hundreds of Highlands Elementary families that donated their time and money
District of North Vancouver
The project was installed by:
Great Canadian Landscape Company