After two years of planning and fundraising, construction of Phase One of an outdoor classroom has begun at Ecole Elmwood School in Altona.

"We saw a big need for shade on our school yard," said Scott Hiebert, the school's principal. "We have planted quite a few trees, but they're all still on the immature side. Creating a sheltered space is a great way of encouraging outdoor learning. Once we settled on the picnic shelter structure idea we've been working for about two years to plan, design and fundraise. Our goal was to have the structure standing for the start of this school year. But as often happens with construction, we experienced some delays and we're just pleased to see it starting to move along now."

With the dollars in place to complete the project, principal Scott Hiebert says it's now a matter of gathering materials and contractors being able to work around the weather.

Hiebert says the hope is to complete the concrete work before winter sets in.

"The actual roof joists and sheeting could still happen over the winter. As you do with projects like this trying to convince local contractors to help us out and maybe donate some labor, that means being flexible within their schedules. Hopefully by the spring it will be totally complete, and we can move on to the naturalized area around there that is the next phase of the plan."

Total cost of the project will be close to $100,000.    

Hiebert says reaching their fundraising goal happened thanks to the efforts of Elmwood's Home and School Association, strong support from the local business community and a grant from the province's Building Sustainable Communities Fund. 

Principal sponsors include Elmer's Manufacturing, Friesens, Access Credit Union and Altona Farm Service.

Staff is counting on getting year-round use out of the structure.

"I think there are definitely opportunities for staff to use the space as an outdoor learning spot during the winter," said Hiebert. "The posts are spaced in such a way that we could put tarps up and create a sheltered area."

The school will not be the sole benefactor of the outdoor space.

"We see it as a space for sort of a center point for our outdoor school functions like our picnic or our Skittles Day in the fall. We also know that our schoolyard serves as a park for the surrounding neighborhood after school hours and all summer long. Anytime you drive by in the summer there are families making use of the school grounds, which is fantastic. We [are] often asked, could you put a few more benches under the trees? Things like that. I think having the shade structure and the picnic tables that will be in there will benefit the surrounding community just as much as it benefits our school community."

Phase two of the project will include creating a mini forest on the school yard using native plant species and trees, as well as a new sand play area which was completed this summer.

"We took an area that was typically a mud puddle through the spring melt season and when it rained heavily and put in a new large deep area for kids to play in the sand. It has been extremely popular so far this year."

Hiebert points out that the project will support the Elmwood's early years curriculum and natural play outside, as well as enhance the overall experience of the school yard.

outdoor classroom under construction in snowy playground

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