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Community offers ideas for outdoor classroom

Community members were asked to rank possibilities for the school prairie, with options ranging from A to Z (archery to a zip line course). (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

By Jean Ruzicka

The students have spoken: “Let’s grow the food and eat the food…That’s so cool.”

The steering committee addressing possibilities for an outdoor learning classroom on the Park Rapids Schools’ 200-plus acres learned more than half the 450 students responding to the survey want to raise fruits and vegetables. ­ The majority of respondents are middle school students.

An outdoor theater, ropes course, rocket science, climbing walls, broomball, a soccer field and archery area earned thumbs up, as well.

Composting came in at the bottom, as did soil sampling.

“The kids are super pumped,” Century School science teacher Morgan Marcussen told the steering committee. “They talked about the survey for days.” She expressed hope that segments of the outdoor learning classroom will become a reality by spring.

While agriculture and agronomy were not specifically on the survey list, “they are fundamental to this,” Marty Shukert of RDG Planning and Design explained. “Ancillary activities will engage the kids,” he explained.

The project is to be a collaboration of community and kids.

Studies are showing time spent in the outdoors stimulates the brain, actually affecting kids’ ability to learn. This generation is growing up without the freedoms enjoyed by their parents and grandparents, Shukert pointed out of “creek wading and tree climbing.”

Kids experiencing nature today are much more regimented than during our childhood, he said. “We will inject outdoor life in a secure environment, opening career vistas beyond MBAs, attorneys and professional basketball players.”

“But if the classroom is solely about education, it has the castor oil effect,” he said, suggesting adding archery, for example, to propel interest, or a zip line.

An art class studying Monet could head to the proposed greenhouse for inspiration.

“This facility is a canvas. Micro-planning would preclude its evolution,” he said.

“We don’t want to compartmentalize,” Shukert said. “It’s a mix, an organism,” that will evolve over time. “It shouldn’t be built at once. It may be 15 to 20 years before the 200 acres are utilized.

“Then we will start over.”

“We will break it down in chunks,” Dave Collins, executive director of Hubbard County Regional Development Commission, explained of the process. “We have no idea of the price tag. But it’s getting much bigger from what was initially discussed.”

Collins suggested creating an endowment fund. “This could become Park

Rapids’ identity,” but it will take the village, he said of a community partnership.

A review of the acreage spurred ideas, including a replication of a farm homestead, possibly a barn replete with animals, as well as a greenhouse and/or hoop house.

The outdoor learning area could be used by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Floral, vegetable and berry gardens as well as irrigated and non-irrigated crops may be sprouting.

Former teacher Steve Maanum, who’d been involved with the initial planning of the prairie, suggested “price tags” be determined so priorities can be identified. “We should not be duplicating but complementing,” he said, citing the existing school forest as an example. He recommended contacting other schools with outdoor classrooms.

“Locations around Century School lend themselves to gardens,” Dolores Silkworth of RDG Planning and Design told the steering committee Friday, specifically on the south/bus stop area.

SWCD administrator Julie Kingsley, who ran an environmental center for seven school districts, recommended considering a coordinator position.

School board chair Sherry Safratowich agreed, while noting a project this large can’t exist without volunteers.

Park Rapids’ 200 acres to be tapped are enviable, compared with a metro school’s “100 square feet,” Shukert said.

“The site is so big were not limited,” Shukert said. “I’m excited about integrating agricultural education into the classroom.

“I also know the kids the kids want to have fun.”

Following the input, the plans will be reviewed and refined, with cost estimates determined.

Another steering committee meeting is expected to be convened at the end of January or early February.