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Woodpeckers, frogs, and kale: Valleycliffe Elementary seeks $155k to upgrade current, beloved, outdoor classroom

40k has been raised thus far for Squamish school project.

When young Jacob started at Valleycliffe Elementary School, he was a little bit nervous. So, every morning, he headed to the outdoor educational space, and suddenly, he felt OK. The apple trees reminded him of home, and he could point out other familiar plants and foliage. 

Raakel Toppila, Jacob's mom and head of Valleycliffe Elementary School's Parent Advisory Council (PAC), has set out to raise $155,000 for a new sheltered outdoor educational space.

A decade ago, the elementary school dedicated 1.2 hectares (three acres) to an outdoor classroom along the Stawamus River dike system.

 According to Toppila, they brought in specialists to create a wetland environment, created garden beds for radishes and kale, and established an Indigenous plants trail, with the help of Elde​​rs.  

While the space is often utilized by classroom teachers, participating grades are also offered weekly classes with Squamish CAN, a local non-profit. They teach kids about growing food—from soil conditions and planting all the way until harvesting, and replanting the harvested seeds come fall, said Christen Young, a Squamish CAN volunteer and Valleycliffe parent. 

"You'd be so amazed; kids who would never eat spinach or kale or greens or a radish will happily gobble it up when they've grown it themselves, and they're all harvesting it together," said Young.

Kids CAN

Squamish CAN also taught the youngsters about the environment and the impacts that the climate crisis has on the ability to grow food and how to identify specific plants. 

But with frequent rain and increasingly high spring temperatures, Young says far too often the space is unable to be utilized due to weather. 

"The kids can either be really, really hot and they're all kind of melting when we're doing the teaching element, or in some cases, it's just pouring rain. And if it is too awful, then we'll just call it, because we don't really have an undercover space to work in," said Young.

A new proposed shelter would cover enough space for roughly one classroom full of kids and some adults, without being fully enclosed. 

Outside of school hours, the space would be open for birthday parties or other community gatherings—even the local circus collective is interested, said Toppila. 

The Squamish CAN program currently operates from September to October and starts back up again in March until the end of the school year. With a covered shelter, the hope is the space can be utilized for more, if not all, of the school year. 

"This structure …  will serve as a central hub for learning, celebrations, and leisure activities throughout the year," wrote the principal of Valleycliffe Elementary School, Shaun Jakob, in a statement. 

"Building community is a key focus at Valleycliffe Elementary, and having an outdoor classroom structure that provides protection from the natural elements will create more opportunities for the school community to come together and enjoy outdoor learning," 

According to Toppila, they have currently raised roughly $40,000 in both monetary and in-kind donations—one from an archaeology firm and another from a geologist. 

The latest monetary donation accounts for $20,000 of the total raised thus far. 

The kids are getting involved too—they are selling raffle tickets towards a prize pack featuring items from North Face and Arc'teryx among other brands. The kids are in it for a prize of their own, the chance at a coveted candy jar, said Toppila.

But it is the little moments from the garden that motivate the PAC to push for this upgrade. 

When one family brought home some new soil for their garden, a red-legged frog jumped out. This is one of the at-risk species that calls the wetlands at Valleycliffe Elementary home. As the adults in the child's life had no idea what to do with their tag-along frog, their kiddo knew exactly what to do. 

"We need to take it to the outdoor classroom at school," said the child. 

Now, the Valleycliffe community knows exactly what to do to help more kids get to be silent in hopes of hearing a woodpecker, say hello to at-risk species, and learn to love the taste of kale all year long. 

How to help

Locals can help by donating through the SchoolCash Online site, or check out the Valleycliffe Elementary Outdoor Classroom Shelter Facebook page.


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