If it weren’t for rain, wind and snow, the students at Sag Harbor Elementary School might not need classrooms at all.
In a circular enclave in the southern corner of the schoolyard, wood stumps fill in as a natural replacement for chairs in the school’s outdoor classroom and a gravel path leads to other outdoor learning centers.
The classroom is part of the school’s Eco-Walk, a 300-yard path that winds around the three-acre schoolyard and will one day feature stations that mimic natural ecosystems, like the beach dunes or the woodlands, where students can learn about them firsthand.
The Eco-Walk is an expansion of the school’s greenhouse, which was built in 2008, where students often take their science classes taught by Kryn Olson.
But Olson envisions it as a universal place of learning.
“The Eco-Walk is a place for reading, writing, math, science, technology,” she said. “Above and beyond that, it’s cooperative learning and it’s life learning, problem solving.”
Olson’s vision for the Eco-Walk was well-received by a group of parents who have spearheaded fundraising to make it a reality. The group has raised about $100,000 in monetary and in-kind donations of goods and services in the past year, said Heather Saskas, one of the parents who led the campaign.
The fundraising has allowed the school to hire a master gardener, who works closely in conjunction with Olson, plot the Eco-Walk path, and soon begin to install three ecosystems, the dunes, the wetlands and the woodlands.
School Principal Matthew Malone said the school has also budgeted to build a new playground this year, which will follow the lead of the Eco-Walk and use natural elements in place of steel and plastic wherever possible. For example, a natural hill would become a slide.
Malone said the direction the school is going as a whole is one that he sees as necessary and an important education for the growing generation.
“We’re understanding that in order for real change to occur, this generation now are the ones that will come up with solutions,” he said. “They are going to be those problem solvers that find ways to use less energy and harvest natural resources.”
Even without the ecosystems in place, teachers at the school are already using the greenhouse, outdoor classroom and school gardens as the settings for class.
Art classes sit in the garden to sketch, math classes calculate the square footage of garden plots, and Spanish classes walk through the garden for an interactive vocabulary lesson.
On Thursdays after school, the entire community is also invited to the Eco-Walk to help in the greenhouse and develop the garden. The Pierson High School baseball and softball teams are regulars, Olson said.
Peter Hatfield, 7, of Sag Harbor said he likes the outdoor classes because he feels like he’s exercising while working in the garden. He said his favorite class to have outdoors is science because he likes planting, even though it’s tiring.
“It’s kind of difficult,” he said. “But once you get half of them in, you start to get used to it.”
Olson said what she has seen already through teaching classes in the greenhouse has been transformative.
She mentioned teaching her students to transplant, a tedious and monotonous process of moving sprouting seedlings from the planter into the ground.
“It’s hard for them to learn to slow down and hard for them to not be entertained in three or four different ways at once,” she said. “This gives them time to really contemplate what goes on out here.”
Photo: Sag Harbor Elementary School Teacher Kryn Olson teaches a fourth grade science class in the school's Eco-Walk. (May 26, 2011)