Classroom without walls
Crestline teacher enjoys teaching students about nature
Special to the Enquirer
A normal school day consists of students learning core subjects in a traditional classroom – desks in a row or arranged in small groups; classroom walls decorated with posters and charts to aid students in their learning; students reading, listening to a lecture or watching a short video to assist with the daily skill.
At Crestline Elementary, students have a teacher whose classroom has no walls.
Barb Helton, environmental science teacher for Pre-K through fourth grade, holds classes in the school’s outdoor classroom. “We are fortunate to have this program in place,” Helton said. “We go outside every day unless it’s raining or dangerously cold. I do have a classroom inside, but we use it as a last resort.
“I believe students need to de-stress from working inside all day,” Helton explained. “For various reasons, children don’t play outdoors. Family lifestyles now do not allow for family time to explore nature.”
Helton’s first job was at Danville Elementary, where she taught second grade for eight years. She then transferred to Crestline, where she taught first grade for 22 years. After teaching first grade, she began teaching only science and is now in her seventh year as an environmental science teacher.
“I think this is where the Lord has taken me. I pray He’s gracious enough to allow me a few more years,” she said.
The outdoor classroom consists of a butterfly garden, bird habitat, turtle habitat, fruit orchard, bog, rock garden, sensory garden, herb garden, calendar garden, raised beds, compost station, log decomposition area, sandbox, measuring pole, magnetic board, weather station, cistern and pond.
Benches provide a place to sit and observe the many birds that frequent the bird feeders and birdbath. The classroom also features a small chicken house and pen that house a couple of laying hens.
Helton said her main goal is to introduce children to nature – something she does in several ways.
Students are allowed to help maintain their outdoor classroom by planting flowers and vegetables and harvesting a variety of vegetables and fruits. Students also pull weeds, water plants, fill the turtle pond and help build learning stations. The latest station Helton and her students are working on is insect houses.
Helton purchases supplies – such as garden gloves, which she said her students love to wear.
“It’s amazing to see how excited kids get when they pull weeds. This helps them take ownership, when they are responsible for caring for it,” she said. “Last year, I purchased an aquaponics tank, and they learned how plants grown on top of the tank are fertilized by the fish swimming below. They learned how plants and animals are interdependent. We also have a vermicomposter (worm hotel), which aids in feeding our turtles.”
In a classroom with no walls, students not only learn the parts of a plant, but they also experience the action of planting. Helton said these are life skills that might help feed their families one day.
“In these unusual times, more and more families grew gardens this summer,” she said. “Along with gardening, students learned about pollination and how we depend on our pollinators because these two go hand in hand.”
The outdoor classroom has raised beds where students grew carrots, kale, strawberries and tomatoes. Some students were able to taste some of these for the very first time.
“After attending Ag in the Classroom, I organized Crestline’s first Agriculture Day, which was very successful,” Helton added. “We are hoping to have it again this spring.
“My goal is for students to understand how valuable the American farmer really is,” Helton said. “They learn where food comes from, how it’s grown on a farm and how it gets to the table. They learn the importance of farm animals not only for their meat; they also learn about the by-products of cows. I teach that when the animal is processed, hundreds of products are made from every single part of that animal.
“People would be surprised to learn that if it weren’t for cattle, medicines, adhesives, leather, shampoo, air filters, instrument strings and plastics could not be made, and that is only to name a few.”
Animals available for students to see at Agriculture Day were chickens, sheep, goats, a horse, a pig, a show steer and ducks. Different kinds of tractors were also available for students to see.
Crestline students also get to hatch chickens in the incubator at school and eventually return them to the outdoor classroom.
“The students love to take care of them and collect the eggs,” Helton said. “By having chickens, they not only learn responsibility, they are able to learn the difference in a layer and broiler house.”
Another goal in teaching about agriculture is to prepare some students for job opportunities available to them, like environmental engineer, large animal veterinarian, retail buyer, agriculture teacher, food scientist or mechanic, along with many other trades that are linked to farming.
Because Helton lives on a farm, she said she sees the importance of teaching future generations the value of the American farmer and an appreciation for the land.
To put it bluntly? “If we didn’t have farms, we wouldn’t have any food.”