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Classes moving outdoors this spring

‘Learning’ garden at Westwood school

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / April 10, 2011

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With warmer weather finally here, an innovative new outdoor classroom will soon be in bloom at a Westwood elementary school.

Builders say they hope the Outdoor Learning Center at the William E. Sheehan School will serve as a vehicle for children to grow food for local food pantries, use compost bins and learn about recycling, and dabble in a weather center, complete with outdoor seating for 24 students.

The project underway at the Pond Street school has drawn Boy Scouts, residents, parents, and students in recent weeks to set up fencing and the raised-bed vegetable, perennial, and herb gardens that will be at the heart of the 6,500-square-foot learning center.

Sheehan parent Linda Walter, a landscape architect who designed the new area, said Whole Foods Market in neighboring Dedham has pledged to dedicate 5 percent of the store’s net sales on April 12 to help fund the project’s $32,000 price tag.

“We are so grateful for the opportunity Whole Foods has given us to propel the Outdoor Learning Center’s progress forward,’’ said Walter, who last year began planning the project at the school she attended as a girl.

The outdoor classroom, set in an unused area by the basketball courts, is visible from High Street. Volunteers under the guidance of an advisory committee of teachers and parents have been trying to raise money, getting a big boost when the Westwood Education Foundation kicked in $15,000, Walter said.

There were also donations from the Dedham Institute for Savings, the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, and the Westwood Young Women’s Club, and organizers have also held a plant sale, she said. “Now, hopefully, we will be almost there.’’

The plans call for the classroom to include a root-view garden to watch nature at work, and raised-bed gardens for every grade. There, children will learn hands-on lessons integrated into science, language, literacy, social studies, math, and visual arts activities.

A rock and fossil garden, for example, will display examples of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rock to illustrate lessons on geology. The first donation, an example of bubbly Roxbury puddingstone, the Massachusetts state rock, has already come from Franklin Park Zoo, Walter said.

“Many school systems throughout the country and abroad have come to discover the power of school gardens as a teaching tool,’’ said Kristen Evans, principal of the Sheehan School. “In addition to increasing academic achievement, our outdoor learning center will teach our students about healthier nutritional attitudes, environmental stewardship, ecological literacy, and lessons in community and social development.’’

The long-term goal of the Sheehan learning center is to awaken not only generations of young minds but to also become a community destination for recreation programs, harvest fairs, and other events, Walter said.

Teachers have offered input on potential curriculums and Eagle Scout candidates have built sheds and created recycling education fence panels, she said.

Local gardeners are also donating plants and other materials, Walter said, including red twig dogwood, which is striking in all seasons, and velvety lamb’s ear, which some say is the perfect sensory teaching tool.

During the Whole Foods event, shoppers can visit an information booth to learn more about the elements of the outdoor classroom. While the fund-raiser runs from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., families are invited to stop by between noon and 2 p.m. to plant vegetable seeds in recycled yogurt cups so they can start their own gardens. There will also be practical information about recycling and composting available as an example of lesson plans to be taught at the new center.

Whole Foods marketing team leader Lauren Klatsky said the company is committed to teaching children about the difference fresh, healthy foods can make, as well as finding ways to respect the planet’s resources. “We believe in supporting innovative ways of learning these lessons, which is why we decided to share our resources with the Sheehan School’s Outdoor Learning Center,’’ she said.

Walter said she can’t wait until students begin reaping the benefits of the outdoor classroom, especially now that the end of the prep work is in sight.

“We are trying to fit as much into a small space as we can,’’ she said. “It’s very important to show children that the outdoors can be used in a lot of different ways in education. That you don’t just learn inside a school.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.