Castle Rock – When science teacher Ryan Benner assigned students to study insects, he said that only about three species could be found in the grassy area outside his classroom. Common insects such as honeybees and moths live in the lawn, but Benner wants students to see builders’ bees and beetles, also called Castle Rock home.
“You can’t learn much in the grass,” Benner said. “The grass is the biggest crop in the country, but it doesn’t help much.”
Dozens of Castle Rock High School students recently traded books for shovels with the goal of replacing 10,000 square feet of lawn with native plants outside of Pinner’s classroom. Native species such as Willamette pines and native mock orange shrubs will attract the various insects and birds that Benner is eager to point out.
The project is part of local and state movements to move learning from within the four walls of the classroom to the outside.
State lawmakers set aside millions of dollars in March to ensure younger students have access to study abroad. The United Way of Cowlitz and Wahkiakum also hosted their first Youth Service Day, which featured Castle Rock, Kelso and Cathlamet students volunteering at local parks and gardens on Thursdays and Fridays.
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“Volunteering gives students the skills they need and opens up opportunities they may not know about,” said Sabrina Kochbrava, President of United Way.
Penner already leads outdoor classes near a wetland behind the high school and an area near the school’s greenhouse where he and the students have installed a natural rainwater system.
He said that these hands-on outdoor activities help students retain information. Penner balances state-issued curricula designed to be taught in the classroom with the outdoor activities he creates to bring those lessons home.
“I don’t like doing book,” he said. “The outer space that I can take the kids to will have a greater impact on the students. They will learn better.”
Benner added that the outdoor space at Castle Rock isn’t just for science classes. Woodshop students thinking of making benches; Art students may make sculptures. Students in the library can read outside; Other classes can finish working in the space.
Students plan to cover the area with mulch, and senior classmates in Penner’s Field Ecology class select plants. Volunteer Nancy Chenault said the school has already received donations of native Washington shrubs such as red flowering currant and golden currant from the Cowlitz Farm Forestry Association.
United Way also donated money to rent a chopper for sod; The school’s science club donated money to build a mesh weed barrier; Students donate time. Benner estimated that the project could have cost about $10,000 without donations.
United Way’s Kochprava said the nonprofit has extended its annual Day of Care, which targets all ages, to young people this spring to promote learning while helping communities. About 350 students participated this year.
Washington leaders are emulating statewide outdoor education programs that already exist in states such as Oregon, California and Alaska.
Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed the statewide outdoor education bill into law on March 23. The law allocates $10 million in the state’s 2021-2023 operating budget for the Office of Superintendent and Public Education and a statewide educational institution to provide grants to fifth- and sixth-grade students for outdoor learning, including by overnight camping.
Benner said he had already applied for funding, but was turned down due to degree restrictions. He said the state representative hopes that eventually the grants will extend to more ages.
The 2021 results of a state-funded survey on the effects of outdoor learning show that students benefited from a class outside. The results show that 73% of teachers said they noticed an improvement in student participation. The study says the students seemed more motivated and confident.
On Thursday, 17-year-old Scott DeMeo of Castle Rock dug into the torrential rain and 40-degree weather, but said he prefers working with his hands over bookwork.
“I love doing that kind of thing,” DeMio said. “I learn how plants and nature grow.”