Students returning to Valleycliffe Elementary next week are in for a nice surprise.
A vision nearly a year in the making has transformed a meadow behind the school into Squamish’s first-ever living classroom — a space where students can learn and experience in nature.
“The school has their big field for soccer, then a playground and behind the playground is a few acres of disturbed meadow,” said environmental educator Rhonda O’Grady, who helped spearhead the transformation.
“People just dumped stuff there and there was some invasive species, but after talking to people in the community, they said back in the ’70s and ’80s there was a wetland there and kids from the school would go there and find salamanders or frogs and even make boats and play with them in the water.”
O’Grady said a flood in the 1980s caused residents to chop down several old-growth trees and the wetland slowly faded away. It quickly became her goal to help restore what was originally there.
She put forth a proposal to the Valleycliffe Parent Advisory Council and the school board last September and in the spring, her plan was approved. Another key step was O’Grady getting to know Edith Tobe of the Squamish River Watershed Society (SRWS). The duo met while working on the Newport Creek restoration project last fall and it turned out to be a perfect fit for both parties.
Tobe said the timing worked out well as she had received funding from the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation to build wetlands specifically on school grounds.
“We worked together to come up with a design and Rhonda did an amazing job selling it to the school board and the PAC,” she said. “I helped supply the funds, the equipment and some expertise and it’s been a wonderful experience and a win-win for everyone.”
She said that the efforts of O’Grady helped make the project run smoothly.
“I can’t speak enough about working with someone like Rhonda who has such long-term vision,” she said. “Her concept is very doable and I think the community is going to respond really well to it.”
Stage 1 of the construction of the Living Classroom happened on Aug. 16, as a handful of volunteers, wetland specialists and an excavator helped restore the wetlands. An observation mound was also built. Longer-term plans for the wetlands include a tunnel, a First Nations pit house and eventually a small amphitheatre.
O’Grady said a big part of her motivation is to get more children outside and in nature.
“Outdoor classrooms are huge in the rest of the world and especially in North America,” she said. “I find a lot of kids don’t play outside in Squamish or if they do, they’re a little afraid to go beyond the mowed lawn.
“We don’t want to be the last generation to experience the joy of playing in nature because it is getting lost. Studies have shown that children learn better and have a better attention span when they’re outside more. It makes sense — it’s our natural habitat.”
She envisions teachers using the living classroom during class time and using it as part of their curriculum.
“What is so awesome is these kids will be able to document the progress of the nature out there,” she said. “They could plant a tree, name it, water it and then go back to it every year.”
Planting of native species at the living classroom will occur in the fall, with pathways and bird feeders being installed in the winter. O’Grady said she will consult with teachers, students and the community on what they want to see added.
Tobe said she’d like to see a project similar to this in other schools around Squamish, noting that Quest University could be next.
“We’ve got six elementary schools, two universities and two high schools — I’m interested in them all,” she said. “The ground has to have that history of a presence of water, but we could also do lined wetlands in schools that don’t have that history.”
She said she doesn’t have the funding yet but regularly applies to receive more. She added that she also needs “that Rhonda-type person” to work with in each area. Tobe also advised dirt bikers to stay off the living classroom in Valleycliffe after bikers damaged the area earlier this month.
For more information on the SWRS, visit www.squamishwatershed.com. Those interested in helping O’Grady out on the Valleycliffe project can contact her at (604) 815-1118.