Whittier Elementary Students Reconnect with Nature

WHEATON, Ill. — Local contractor and community supporter Bruss Landscaping broke ground on a new outdoor classroom project at Whittier Elementary School in Wheaton in early April. The project is affiliated with Come Alive Outside, an organization that focuses on helping people reconnect with nature and the outdoors in ways that improve health and wellness.

The courtyard garden and interactive outdoor learning space gives students the opportunity to participate in hands-on activities that help them connect with nature and raise awareness of environmental issues, as well as increase physical activity levels.

“The school will benefit from students, faculty and parents being more engaged in school activities. This is likely to be the case based on an increased value given to healthy living,” said Mike Kehl, designer at Bruss Landscaping. “The goal is to get the students active and outdoors. This will likely trickle into their homes and positively affect all the families associated with the Come Alive Outside initiative.”

Bruss worked with school officials and volunteers to design an outdoor space that could be used for formal education (seated in a more traditional format) and informal studying. The project required kid-friendly equipment and spaces where children could learn how to grow vegetables, learn about composting, eco-system function and change through the seasons, and about local flora and fauna.

“The garden will be used for class time and extracurricular activities, whether it is used simply to break the norm and cater a lecture outdoors or engage students in a multi-week project involving composting, vegetable gardening, insect studies or rainwater collections,” Kehl said.

The outdoor classroom can accommodate 32 children and includes a picnic space for faculty and students. The space is made available to children who earn “lunch outdoors” and students can then interact with teachers in a way that breaks the norm of a typical classroom. The landscape plan for the courtyard space includes raised planters for vegetable gardening, bench seating for lecture classes, work tables for hands-on lessons, a variety of plant types for both sun and shade locations, paths and structures made of natural materials that encourage movement and engage the senses.

“We have completed numerous projects like this in the community that improve a public or private gathering space,” Kehl said. “This one is different based on the complex programming of the space and the overriding mission to get people outside.”

Bruss Landscaping, which is donating the labor and use of its equipment, started the site layout and initial construction of the pathways, or Discovery Walk, earlier this month. Construction materials are being donated by Des Plaines, Ill.-based Lurvey Landscape Supply, which helped found the CAO Chicago group and brought Bruss into the project. After excavation and site preparation, Bruss will install eight tons of Fossil Creek stepping stones and two tons of limestone screenings to create the garden paths. The materials were chosen for their durability, low-maintenance and eco-friendly qualities.

“The ultimate goal is to motivate students, faculty and parents to Come Alive Outside,” Kehl said. “Exposing them to an active and healthy lifestyle will work in everyone’s favor, not to mention the students will be learning an awful lot about subjects they may not ever be exposed to in other schools. This is truly unique and something to be desired by other schools.”