Outdoor classroom a place of prayer, learning at St. Mary School in Kickapoo

Kindergartner Owen Schaub gives a good drink of water to the newly planted flowers in the outdoor classroom at St. Mary School in Kickapoo. The students were guided by Owen's grandmother, master gardener Anne Schaub. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

KICKAPOO — Over the summer, a new classroom was added to St. Mary School here. Don’t look for it inside the building, however.

The spacious new learning center is located behind the school on a large lot that had plenty of grass but wasn’t used for anything — until kindergarten teacher Josette Baumann received a $1,000 PNC First Grant last spring. With matching funds from the St. Mary Parents Club and construction skills volunteered by the parish Men’s Club in August, it was ready to go when the students reported for class on Aug. 15.

The outdoor classroom is ringed by stone pavers that form a walking rosary where students and parishioners can pray. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

In addition to five raised garden boxes for herbs, vegetables and flowers that not only look beautiful but will support butterflies, the outdoor classroom is ringed by stone pavers that form a walking rosary, where students and parishioners alike can pray.

“It is my desire to dedicate this outdoor classroom to Our Blessed Mother, Mary,” said Baumann, who brought the Mary statue from her own garden to get the project started. “I hope that this area will be an area where our students will not only learn about science and math, but also grow closer to our Lord and God.”

As a parish dedicated to St. Mary, the rosary was a natural part of the outdoor classroom, according to Father Joseph Dondanville, pastor.

“We do living rosaries all through the year and to be able to actually have a space and be able to come out here to pray is really important for the spiritual formation of our kids and will strengthen our school and parish community,” he told The Catholic Post.

MORE RESPONSIVE

“I personally am in love with nature. I’m always outside and I find the kids are more responsive when you do outside activities,” said Baumann, who has taught kindergarten at the Kickapoo school, her alma mater, for five years. She taught pre-school and kindergarten in Peoria District 150 schools for 11 years before that.

As part of her continuing education, she took an online course in outdoor education through Benedictine University and started thinking of ways to incorporate that at St. Mary.

Kindergartner Sophia Oppe takes a close look at a tiny caterpillar that has taken a big bite out of a milkweed leaf held by teacher Josette Baumann in the new outdoor classroom at St. Mary School in Kickapoo. Looking on is Taylor Gilles. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Among the benefits of the outdoor classroom are fostering an appreciation and care for the environment, offering lessons about the biology of the plants and animals found there, and solving problems, such as how deep to plant the flowers and herbs and how far apart they need to be to grow well. She said there are also lessons to be learned in music, geography and history, such as “What would the first explorers and settlers have seen when they came to the area?”

Baumann does a butterfly unit each year, and said she is always out hunting for caterpillars on milkweed plants to bring inside. With the butterfly garden, the students will be able to see the life cycle of the butterflies in a way that is natural.

And when she prays a decade of the rosary with her little ones after lunch, they will have a place to meditate on each mystery in a much more focused way.

“I’m also hoping to pull from the parish and get some volunteers to come in and do a gardening/farmers club with the kids, maybe meet once a month and teach them about the different types of plants and vegetation and then help maintain it during the summer,” Baumann said.

That started to happen on a recent Friday afternoon, when parishioner Anne Schaub came to help the kindergartners and fifth-graders put marigolds, daisies, coneflowers, asters, lilies, Russian sage and mums in the garden boxes behind the statue of the Blessed Mother. They also planted basil, parsley, thyme, dill, radishes, and lettuce.

A butterfly bush will join the plant life in time.

Pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, cucumbers and sunflowers are on deck for next year, said Schaub, who is known for her gardening skills.

A LOT OF LEARNING

While everyone was having a good time and Baumann said play is important, she emphasized that the outdoor classroom is part of the instructional program at St. Mary, not part of the playground.

Under the watchful eye of Steve Gilles, Sawyer Jansen helps to construct one of the four cedar tables purchased for the new outdoor classroom at St. Mary School in Kickapoo. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“They will enjoy it. It will seem like play, but there’s going to be a lot of learning that goes on here,” she said. “That’s our goal, for the learning to come through and be something engaging and fun for them to do.”

That comes with classroom rules. For example, the pea gravel inside the 75-by-30-foot area must stay there, and the statue of Mary and the rosary must be treated with respect.

Even though it was only their second time in the new learning center, the children picked up on that right away and were sweeping the gravel off the rosary’s stone pavers as their classmates did the planting.

“I can’t thank Josette enough for having the vision to do this and for all the work she did to make this happen,” Father Dondanville said. “This is a great thing.”

Baumann is quick to share the praise.

“All of this has only been possible because of the volunteers, dedicated families and members of our school and parish,” she said.

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