Before Gurganus became a principal, as a teacher at her previous locations, she took classes from South Pointe, Grand River, and South Canton each year to the Battle Creek Outdoor Education Center or Clear Lake Camp.
“It actually wasn't until this most recent trip when I was watching the students, that the inspiration for this started,” Gurganus said. “I had been watching the students engage in the pond where they were dip netting for macroinvertebrates. Then, I went to watch another group of students that were on the high ropes course. I just kept thinking about the fact that it was really authentic engagement.
“Students were all in and participating. Even kids that may have been reluctant were excited and doing something. I kept thinking, ‘How do we bring that to school?’ ‘How, as a school leader, do we engage kids like that within the four walls of school?’”
Gurganus kept thinking about it. There is a township-owned property adjacent to the school where there are several miles of trails available to the public. The Lower River Rouge runs through this public trail area, as well.
“I believed we could recreate a lot of outdoor opportunities for kids right here at our school,” Gurganus said. “Then I came back to school and shared my idea with our administrative team. Katie (Ruwe, dean of upper elementary) was really excited about it. So, I asked her to lead the project and our vision is coming to light. She is very good at managing detail-oriented work.”
Ruwe is a former English teacher and admitted to being, “not much of an outdoor girl, but doing this project aligns with several things we wanted to bring back this year. We wanted to renew our status as a Green School and renew several community partnerships that weren’t possible to keep during COVID-19. Plus learn more about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. This is the perfect project.”
Ruwe asked if there were staff members who were interested in working with her. Three other staff volunteered. They are: Amanda Lawyer, third-grade teacher, Laura Hurn, first-grade teacher, and Joe McCarthy, sixth-eighth-grade social studies teacher.
The idea was brought to the school’s board of directors. They also were supportive of the outdoor education program and approved funding for it.
In June, this team of invested educators went to Traverse City to visit three outdoor education programs at a grade school, a middle school, and a high school. Staff at South Canton’s authorizer, Grand Valley State University, helped arrange the one-day visit. The middle school and high school are one school called The Greenspire School.
“The elementary school has partnered with a nearby farmer, and we learned a lot about how that works,” Ruwe said. “We also saw how the elementary school uses a STEM lab. We saw their garden beds and their compost system. At the middle school, we saw some of the project-based curriculum they use. The high school just completed its first year, staff there showed and helped us understand the different types of technology they were using to integrate more research-based opportunities for their students.”
At the Traverse City programs, the students go outside unless it is a calamity day. It was raining the day the South Canton Scholars team was visiting and the kids were outside with their raincoats on.
“The Greenspire School is adjacent to a property that provides lots of trails to them, as well,” Gurganus said. “We saw how the schools teach their kids a lot about critical thinking, as well as outdoor skills, to be able to help them problem solve in a more unique way.”
South Canton Scholars is working with a consultant as well. Gurganus got to know the former program director at Clear Lake Camp, who is a certified teacher. She is helping work with the South Canton team as they continue to develop the Outdoor Education Program. She also helped during professional development week. She’ll continue coming into staff meetings once a month to lead a professional development activity.
“The goal is to do acclimation activities with staff so they can lead those same activities with their classrooms,” Gurganus said. “The first goal is to get everyone comfortable being outside and all things nature.
“Our team of outdoor education program teachers will help with how we integrate outdoor education within our existing curriculum for science,” she explained further. “This won’t be a separate curriculum; it’s going to be taking what we already are using and enhancing it for outdoor use.”
South Canton Scholars is in the process constructing its outdoor education program classroom. It has purchased outdoor desks similar to The Greenspire School. It has an outdoor chalk board coming. It plans to use current picnic tables and other outdoor furniture to designate outdoor space for teachers. Some outdoor garden beds were built.
“A hydroponic grow tower was purchased, as well,” Ruwe said. “We saw it at the elementary school. It can grow lettuce, spinach, and different herbs. When we were there, they had several students come in to get lettuce to make a salad for lunch.”
To build a comfort level for the teachers, Gurganus is starting with a baseline requirement of teachers leading one unit per trimester outside. She also has asked teachers to have a purposeful nature walk with their students for at least 15 minutes each day.
The plan is to focus on a specific theme each month and to intentionally take students outside. That will look differently for first graders as opposed to middle schoolers. The deans will help in the process, as well.
“An example is our first-grade class learning to measure with a ruler. I could take them outside and ask them to measure five things in nature that are six inches long,” said Ruwe. “It’s taking things that are already in our curriculum and bumping up the engagement by taking the students outside.”
Lastly, there is the mental health aspect and benefit for both students and teachers to be able to go outside and experience nature. Gurganus and Ruwe cited research that supports the importance of nature in growth and development and self-care in general.
Plans are to have a special event for families in early October so they can see the outdoor education center and learn more about it.
South Canton Scholars is a tuition-free, public charter school in Canton, Michigan, serving students in Young 5s through eighth grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes 98 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.