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Enquirer photo/Lauren Jackson Mackenzie Sharp and Maddie Hames help prepare an area for a box turtle habitat.

Out-of-the-box learning

Barkley Bridge Elementary revitalizes outdoor classroom

What began with one woman’s vision for an outdoor learning space eight years ago continues to inspire students today. Barkley Bridge Elementary School welcomed the Alabama Wildlife Federation and community stakeholders for an outdoor classroom clean-up day Oct. 16.  

The clean-up day allowed students, parents, grandparents and community volunteers to invest in the Joy Thomas Outdoor Classroom at Barkley Bridge. 

Joy Thomas worked at Barkley Bridge Elementary 19 years before retiring, and she was a leader in establishing the outdoor classroom at the school. 

“I am an outdoorsy person, and I wanted the kids to be able to come out here. So eight years ago we turned what was just a big grassy area into most of what you see now,” Thomas explained. “Over the years we have just been maintaining and updating what we have now. The kids come out and help, and they have ownership in it. Then the teachers have lessons they do out here, and we have school-wide activities out here. It’s just a great place for the kids to come out, and some of them will never be able to come out other than this,” Thomas said. 

Enquirer photo/Lauren Jackson
Joy Thomas returns to the Barkley Bridge outdoor classroom to help continue her legacy.

The clean-up day took place through a partnership with the Alabama Wildlife Federation. April Waltz, Alabama Outdoor Classroom coordinator with Alabama Wildlife Federation, said the outdoor classroom is vital for giving students hands-on learning experiences. 

“Most children and even adults do not learn from just reading a book. We learn through hands-on activities,” Waltz pointed out. “This is a living laboratory for the students. Kindergarten students come out and learn about living things and non-living things; as they get older, they learn about the basic needs of those living things and talk about habitats. They are learning about pollinators and the importance of pollination and about life cycles. 

“For instance, in the butterfly garden area, they are getting to see the life cycle of the butterfly. With all of these experiences, they are truly little scientists,” Waltz said. “They are making observations, and they are collecting data.”

Enquirer photo/Lauren Jackson
Harper Kerley, Heidi Munson and Madeline Coggin prepare an area for a raised planter.

In addition to cleaning out the existing areas, the school was able to add a box turtle habitat, educational signs, a worm bin and wildlife habitat plants through a $2,000 grant from the Alabama Mountains Rivers and Valleys Conservation and Development Council. The school also received donated materials and services from Vulcan Materials Company, J and P Johnson Trucking, Betterton Siding and Gutters and Chris Orr with Hartselle Public Works. 

John Mark Waynick is a third-grade teacher at Barkley Bridge Elementary, and he said the clean-up day was a way to involve students in their education.

“We have teachers involved and most importantly the students,” Waynick said. “They are taking part because when they have a hand in it, they are investing in it, and they feel responsible for it when they are out there in it. We are just upgrading and replacing some things that have deteriorated and adding some new things.”

Enquirer photo/Lauren Jackson
Brock Meares and Ethan Sartin clear grass away for a reading nook.

All of the students at Barkley Bridge were able to participate in the clean-up. 

Third-grade science teacher Wendy Goss said the classroom provides a learning environment that sticks with students. Her students help plant crops and harvest them, and they study native Alabama plants and learn more about agriculture. Goss said even younger students can benefit from the space. 

“Our pre-school is doing nursery rhymes, so each raised bed is going along with a nursery rhyme or a story they have been reading,” Goss said. 

Thomas said seeing the community come together to revitalize the classroom fulfills the dream she had for the outdoor space. 

“It’s fun, and it’s exactly what I wanted – that it would be maintained and grow,” Thomas said. “Of course that wouldn’t happen without all the parents and grandparents that we have. It’s neat that we have as much of it still going and (we’re) able to touch up and add new components to it. We are just kind of rebuilding and getting it back going again.”

Goss said the student response was great, and everyone seemed excited to update the classroom. “They have ownership in it. This is their outdoor classroom that they can come out and enjoy and learn.”