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Hickory Grove Hoping to Enrich Early Childhood Education With Outdoor Learning Center

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Mike Rundle
Hickory Grove Principal Jeremy Etnyre and Assistant Principal Michaela Rychener cut the ribbon on the new Outdoor Learning Center May 25.

Richard Louv started a movement when his book “Last Child in the Woods” was published in 2005, and that movement has made its way to Hickory Grove Elementary School.

The team behind Hickory Grove’s new Outdoor Learning Center began the project with a reading of Louv’s book, which calls for unstructured outdoor play to be reintroduced to children as opposed to excessive time spent on electronic devices.

Now, with the help of the Hickory Grove Parent-Teacher Organization, Principal Jeremy Etnyre is off and running with what he says is a great way to instill his own love of nature with the children at the school.

“My goal is to retire in six years, and I thought it would be a wonderful way to end my career by sharing my passion for the outdoors with everyone here at school,” said Etnyre.

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Mike Rundle
Principal Jeremy Etnyre (right) and Assistant Principal Michaela Rychener (left) address Hickory Grove students May 25 at the future site of the Outdoor Learning Center.

In 2019, PTO President Jana Soviar encouraged a capital expenditure project for Hickory Grove, which sparked meetings between teachers, administration, and students to determine the most beneficial route for the school. Soviar emphasizes that one of the best parts of the project is the overwhelming support from the community, specifically recalling a fundraising event held earlier this year.

“The excitement and the commitment across the entire PTO was felt that day,” said Soviar. “The school really showed up and supported that event knowing there was this really exciting project coming to the school and to the community.”

The Outdoor Learning Center at Hickory Grove will include everything from a covered performance stage to an outdoor science classroom complete with a water feature and weather station. The site plan, designed by Bruce Brown of Farnsworth Group, shows a layout that flows naturally with the shape of the school and takes advantage of the large existing green space the campus has to offer.

The completion date will depend on available funds, and Soviar described the timeline as “multi-generational.” According to the Hickory Grove PTO Facebook page, a number of local businesses have already contributed to the project. Pam Scranton of United Presbyterian Church Discovery Preschool asserts that the best way to establish an outdoor learning program is to plan for the students, and the funding will follow.

“You do what’s right for children, and then you figure out the money,” said Scranton.

Scranton, an experienced early childhood educator and serial outdoor learning program founder, established the outdoor learning facilities at UPC which Etnyre, Soviar, and their team toured before finalizing their site plans. Scranton maintains the necessity of outdoor learning and believes it can be beneficial for children in a variety of ways.

“Children learn naturally outside in a more holistic way,” said Scranton. “Especially at the early childhood level, we value the benefit of developmental play where children can explore, get their hands on everything, make predictions, figure out outcomes, record data...that all happens very naturally outside.”

Soviar echoes these ideas, and says that Hickory Grove parents feel the same way.

“Now that [parents are] able to see what we mean when we say ‘outdoor learning center,’ [they] are so blown away by the scope of the project and the impact that it’s going to have as far as expanding their children’s educational space,” said Soviar. “It completely enriches the kids’ educational journey.”

If anyone is most excited about the development of the project, it could be the students of Hickory Grove.

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Mike Rundle
Fourth grade teacher and member of the Outdoor Learning Center planning committee Lisa Schacht plants one of the first trees at the groundbreaking ceremony May 25.

At the groundbreaking ceremony on May 25, Hickory Grove Assistant Principal Michaela Rychener quizzed students on what dishes they could make with newly-planted vegetables, and students stood and cheered when their teachers began planting trees.

“This is the first day we’re opening it and just to see their genuine love of nature and how it’s going to help us further enhance their learning opportunities is just exciting,” said Rychener.

Scranton believes that when students are given the opportunity to learn outdoors through their own discoveries, their educational and social development will move at a more natural, personalized pace. It is her hope that, as evidence builds, more schools locally and nationally will adopt outdoor learning philosophies.

“Many other countries have recognized this a long time ago,” said Scranton. “For public school educators to recognize the significance of nature classrooms and outdoor learning is incredible to me, and I’m so happy that what started as a quick little field trip...has blossomed into this wonderful project that they’re about to undertake at Hickory Grove.”

With construction set to begin over the summer, the Hickory Grove community can expect some Phase One developments soon, and Soviar says seeing the Center come to life will be a reward for prosperous collaboration.

“This idea came to be because of the teachers and because of the students,” said Soviar.

At the end of the day, Etnyre emphasizes that it is really all about the children and what is best for them after more than a year of changes in their educational experience.

“I think that some of [the students] are just now learning all the things that we’re going to do,” said Etnyre. “It really connects with all kids, and we’re excited to get started.”

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Mike Rundle is a correspondent at WCBU. He joined the station in 2020.