Nature’s Classroom; Outdoor classroom brings Woodson students out into the wild

Published 9:30 am Friday, November 2, 2018

The Woodson Kindergarten Center critters got to be out where the wild things were on Thursday afternoon.

Outside of the Woodson school, there are several seats cut from logs by Principal Jill Rollie’s husband and friends and custodians who pitched in to cover a portion of the ground with wood chips, installing a thermometer and bench around a tree.

Along with STEM kits that students can use to measure objects, identify bugs and gather water samples, this outdoor classroom was not just a place where kids can play, but also a place they can actively learn. However, the classroom space first started off as a desire and an idea.

Trystan Qualey gets up close and personal as he examines a pumpkin at Woodson Kindergarten Center Thursday.

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When Chris Kasak, a Woodson kindergarten teacher, wanted to put learning into the hands of her students, she envisioned a place where science could be applied into the real world and not just taught from textbooks or from computer screens.

“My passion was to extend science beyond the classroom,” Kasak said. “This classroom was a dream come true.”

So students were able to go on mini walks, rake through the autumn leaves and dig through the dirt to get their hands dirty. They used their five senses to take in the environment around them, which will help them grasp different concepts later down the road.

Kasak first conceived the idea in Austin Public Schools’ new crowdsourced innovation effort called “thoughtLuck,” where staff are invited to submit their ideas, no matter how big or small, to an online portal where users could vote on them.

Teacher Jason Denzer teaches his students about trees during some outdoor class time Thursday afternoon at Woodson Kindergarten Center.

The top ranked ideas then move into an idea workshop were able to work with industry leaders to further develop their ideas before implementing small-scale testing that would hopefully be rolled out into the district or a specific school. From last year’s “thoughtLuck,” Kasak’s idea about the outdoor classroom as well as other teachers’ ideas for Grab and Go STEM kits, filtered water and more were selected to come into fruition.

“Teachers, custodians, cooks, and others working with students on a day to day basis are able to get those ideas out,” said Superintendent David Krenz. “This helps for making some impactful changes at the schools and in the district.”

Kasak emphasized that while she may have put the idea out there for the district to consider, she felt that the biggest reason for success was having the support from administration to continue onward with her idea.

“For a teacher to have a principal’s support is wonderful,” she said. “The true test is the kids and they love being outside and being able to record what they’ve learned. It’s exciting times to do what’s best for students and making learning fun.”

Teacher Christine Kasak leads her class during some outdoor learning time Thursday afternoon at Woodson Kindergarten Center.