Outside Learning Coming to Chester Elementary School

Karena Garrity

CHESTER, CT — Kids and nature go hand and hand, and the hope is that at Chester Elementary School, a future outdoor learning space, which will also lend itself to town activities, will be in place and ready for use in the fall of the 2021-2022 school year.

The idea sprung from gratitude and a want to give back to the school for its excellence in education and innovative teaching initiatives that greatly benefited the learning and growth of Lol and Charlene Fearon’s grandson, who attended the school for seven years.

The Fearon's, retired educators, know first hand how important the formative years of learning are for the intellectual, emotional and social growth of children. To that end, they wanted to do something special for the school as a thank you message. Their idea came about last spring, just as Covid was hitting hard and the couple’s love of nature and education were united in the notion of an outdoor learning space to be constructed at Chester Elementary School.

Over the summer months, the two busied themselves raising funds for the project. They presented their idea to the Chester Board of Education, the Chester Board of Selectman and the Chester Planning and Zoning Commission. The town and the school are behind the project, which will be funded with donations and grants.

“We see it as an open-air meeting space that can be used for an outdoor learning classroom, as well as a meeting place for town organizations such as; the boy scouts, girl scouts, rotary, book clubs and more,” said Lol.

He added, “Chester has always been known for its creativity, innovation and flexibility and I think this idea fits right into that.”

He explained that issues around Covid brought this idea to the forefront and the need for kids to be outside more for social distancing, but also that this project is a long-range endeavor that will have lasting benefits long after Covid.

“We know from the studies that outdoor learning reduces stress levels in students,” said Lol.

“Our hope is that offering an outside learning space will lead to higher student engagement,” said Chester Elementary School Principal Tyson Stoddard. “This space will complement our outdoor learning area which already has nature trails, a ropes course, a butterfly garden and a rain garden."

The structure is proposed to be an open-air, timber frame structure built at the rear of the school, complete with a covered roof, writable surfaces, trellises, surrounding plantings and eventually hopes are to have Wi-Fi access in the area.

“This will create a great school environment for effective learning outdoors that can be utilized by students in kindergarten through sixth grade,” said Stoddard.

“The more time we can get our kids outside, in a protected space, the better,” said First Selectman Lauren Gister. “We have never had space outside for learning like this before. Typically, if the kids are doing outside projects they are out in the elements, either in the sun or rain, but now they can be outside comfortable doing projects and learning. Any way we can keep kids interested, engaged and healthy is great and the more variety we can provide them with, in different environments, will help them to make better connections to schoolwork and to each other."

She added, “This can only enhance the learning paradigm.”

The goal is to raise $70,000 to fund the project, with no money being taken from the taxpayers. To date, Lol and Charlene have raised just under 70 percent of that goal.

“We are thrilled with the response we have gotten from folks about this project,” said Lol enthusiastically.

The Middlesex Community Foundation is the fiduciary for the project and the Chester Leadership Fund has donated $3,000. In addition, architect Cassie Archer of Centerbrook Architects has donated her time to design the structure. Fundraising efforts will be ongoing through the winter with hopes of meeting the goal by the spring so construction can begin over the summer, making the structure available for use in the fall of 2021.

Lol and Charlene are currently collecting information on the potential on-going budgetary impacts; i.e., maintenance, electricity, insurance/liability, etc. for the structure and will be getting back to the necessary town boards and commissions with that information.

All contributions for the project will be administered by the Community Foundation of Middlesex County. Credit card donations can be made on the Foundation website at www.middlesexcountcf.org or by calling 860-347-0025. Be sure to reference the Open-Air Meeting Space at Chester Elementary School.

This article originally appeared on the Essex-Chester-Deep River Patch