Students embrace outdoor learning

Published 7:34 pm Saturday, May 9, 2009

WINDSOR – Learning can – and perhaps should be – fun.

A new outdoor activity area at all four of the elementary schools of Bertie County Public Schools is providing just that for students in grades kindergarten through five.

“Anytime children are having fun and learning, it is great,” said Windsor Elementary School Principal Renee Duckenfield. “Learning Landscape is a wonderful resource to reinforce the curriculum because it’s interactive.”

Learning Landscape is a module of Project H Design, which is a charitable organization that supports, inspires and delivers life-improving humanitarian product design solutions.

According to their website, “We champion industrial design as a tool to address social issues, a vehicle for global life improvement and a catalyst for individual and community empowerment.”

“Project H is a group of architects and designers who have a passion for helping communities such as ours,” said Bertie County Schools Assistant Superintendent Kenneth Perry.

Perry and members of the school district maintenance staff spent their Easter vacation helping Matthew Miller and Emily Pilloton of Project H install the Learning Landscapes at Windsor Elementary, Aulander Elementary, West Bertie Elementary and Colerain Elementary.

While Project H has installed Learning Landscapes in Africa, the ones in Bertie County became the first four in the United States. They came to Bertie County thanks to the diligence of Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chip Zullinger and Perry and the support of the Bertie County Board of Education.

“Superintendent Zullinger got in touch with Project H after seeing the first Learning Landscape built in Uganda,” said Pilloton, who is the Founder and Executive Director of Project H. “He saw an opportunity to bring an innovative, active and creative solution for elementary math education.

“Project H was excited to build the same math playground in Bertie County that we had built in Uganda, proving that such an educational solution could work all over the world,” Pilloton added.

Perry said he believed initially there was some uncertainty about the affect of the new initiative.

“I think maybe teachers were skeptical,” he said. “It’s novel and a lot of time when you don’t know about something, it’s a little scary. I was optimistic, but I didn’t know until we tested it what kind of magic it had.”

Windsor Elementary third grade teacher Amy Mizell admitted she wasn’t sure about the design until she used it.

“I was skeptical until we went out and used it,” she said. “The students were so excited.”

Mizell said both of her classes had used the Learning Landscapes and enjoyed their time outside while learning. They use the math playground on average once per week per class.

“They absolutely love it,” she said. “We’re able to use it as remediation. They play a game and can help each other. I’ve used it with math facts and fractions.”

Mizell said she also liked the way the Learning Landscape taught team motivation and the excitement the children had using it.

Principals at the elementary level said the program is going well and allowing children to show how much they already know.

“It’s an excellent learning tool and provides a lot of opportunity for students to show expertise in math skills,” said West Bertie Elementary School Principal Wayne Mayo. “The students do a combination of math skills that show their knowledge. The kids are excited about it.

“It is good for both an energy exercise and mental math,” Mayo added.

Duckenfield said her teachers have already used the Learning Landscape for addition, multiplication and for use with vocabulary.

“I was particularly pleased to see Ms. Mizell using multiplication with Learning Landscape,” Duckenfield said. “It’s an area of focus for the third grade and it was good to see her using it for that.”

For his part, Perry said he likes the competitive part of education being returned to the students.

“I like seeing kids get excited about doing mental math,” Perry said. “The games help bring competition back into education, which is needed.

“There was a time when teachers used to say there would be a global economy and instead of students competing against others from Windsor, for example, they would be competing with students worldwide,” he added. “That’s where these kids are.”

While they are already being used regularly, Duckenfield said she believes the day will come when it is used even more.

“It will evolve,” she said. “We received some information for how to use it and they asked us to provide the games we come up with, so I think it will continually evolve.”

The Learning Landscape, Perry believes, is just the beginning of the partnership between Bertie County Schools and Project H.

“They want to help us continue to increase achievement,” Perry said.

Other areas in which Project H may offer assistance include a Learning Landscape at Bertie Middle School and the redesign of the courtyard at Bertie High School.

“As for the high school, we aren’t sure yet,” Pilloton said. “It’s a huge space and we’re hoping to activate it by bringing some more interactive features, like perhaps projecting film or graphics on the large wall of the gymnasium.”

The partnership between Project H and Bertie County Schools is one the district believes has already beneficial.

“Nobody remembers for certain where we came across Project H, but we’re certainly glad we did,” Perry said. “They have already helped tremendously and I think they will continue to help us.”