“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories.These are the moments when the world is made whole.”
In the past year, we built a large hill on our back field for our students. To some, the idea was silly… but to most, including our students, the Kent Hill has been something that has helped encourage play and learning in more ways than we ever imagined.
It is no secret that staff and parents at Kent Elementary have strong views on the power of outdoor play and exploration. For a number of years, there have been different ideas and activities like a community garden, outdoor education at the local research station, nature walks, the building of a large outdoor sandbox, and class hikes to the rivers and lakes. In 2007, some teachers at Kent applied and received grants and worked with local university programs and engineering companies to design and build our beautiful garden.
Within the garden are paths, large rocks, and stumps for kids to play on. In addition, the teachers (particularly Ms. Trish Fushtey) went to great lengths to work with local artists to have each child design and build their own concrete and tile stepping stone for the paths. What we began to notice was that more children were playing in the garden creating their own games than were playing on the playground equipment. We also took note that students loved to play on a little hill that was covered by plants.
One staff meeting a few years ago, I showed the video “Born To Learn” with the intention of simply creating dialogue around education reform. This video led to a passionate conversation around outdoor play and a “long shot” idea of developing a large hill in the field was even thrown out there.
As the garden needs regular maintenance, we held a work bee last year and some dedicated parents came and helped a few teachers and students weed and prune. During this activity, a comment was made by Kathie Cardinal (a teacher very passionate about outdoor education), that we once threw around the idea of building a hill out here… and because of the excitement and dedication of our parent group, they responded with – WHY NOT?
This got the ball rolling on the design and creation of our own Kent Hill. Collin Johnson, a parent and local engineer, worked to research and design the hill with safe and child-oriented slopes. Wendy Clark, Teresa Stoeckly, and Amber Kafi (parents) also worked with Collin to hold meetings and tap into local resources to help create this hill at little to no cost. We took the minutes and designs, along with our WHY, to the Board and asked for permission to build. Although there were some questions, in May 2012, the idea for the Kent Hill was approved and last summer the hill was built and seeded. When the students returned to school in September, the Hill was built but fenced off as we needed the seed to grow. We told them that when the snow arrived in the winter, the PAC had purchased 50 Crazy Carpets that could be used for the hill… the excitement grew along with the grass.
Unfortunately, our winter was a warmer, wetter one but we did get one sprinkle of snowfall… just enough to move the fences and free the sledders! Normally we would have to wait until the ploughs came to clear our parking lot to create our snow hill; this time it was all ready to go with only a few centimeters (half-inch) of snow.
Following the muddy winter, we finally opened the hill. Of course the students were thrilled to be able to run and roll up and down the hill – the challenge became getting them back into the school shortly after the bell :-).
It is difficult to express in words how the hill has enhanced life at Kent. When I presented our highlights (including the story of the hill – see presentation slides below) to the Board, I shared some expected outcomes of the hill: increased outdoor play, excitement, wonder, health, fitness, and excitement. I also shared the outcomes that we didn’t foresee: regular learning on the hill, infusing the hill into physical education classes and sports day, buddy play (as both primary and intermediate students have access), using for sensory needs (ex. spinning, rolling, climbing), and student developed self-regulation strategies.
The benefits were numerous. Teachers at Kent worked with students to create brand new minor games that used the hill as a key component of their PE environment. Many students stated their favourite event in sports day involved the hill. The last two in the above list really showed how much students can teach us. When a student is a bit antsy in class, we often encourage them to go for a walk or run in the field. I was working with some students that were having a rough day (behaviour-wise) and they mentioned they were having a high energy day. I asked them if they would like to go for a run with me around the school and their response surprised me… they said, “actually, can we climb up and down the hill a few times?”. After we did this, I asked them what they liked about the hill to get some energy out and they responded, “we like digging our hands in and helping us to climb – feels like we are bears”. In the child’s mind, the students were being bears; in my mind, these students had shown me that the hill can be used as a way to help students self-regulate by using not just their legs but also their arms and creative minds. Not only did a “simple” hill create the conditions for more play and joy outdoors, it also helped our teachers enhance play in class and helped our students with some of the sensory diets and self-regulation needs.
In a fast-moving, light-flickering, and sound-blasting world, I think it is that much more important to help our students learn to ground themselves with nature. What this development did was show us how much students love playing in the outdoors and that a simple, low-cost hill can be a great first step to creating more of a highly beneficial natural play area in schools.
Please take 2 minutes and watch the video below that was shown for the Board about our Hill.
Special thank you to current and former staff for modeling and encouraging the value of outdoor play and wonder.
This would not have been possible without the relationships with our dedicated parent community. Thank you to the following people for making Kent Hill a reality:
- Collin Johnson, Wendy Clark, Teresa Stoeckly, Amber Kafi of our PAC
- Abby Contracting
- Kafi Landscaping
- Kafi Bobcat
- Burden Propane
- District of Kent
- Dogwood Manor
- Kel-Mor Enterprises
- Strohmaier’s Excavating
- Timberwood Excavating
- Wedler Engineering
- Bott Development
- Timbro Contracting
- School District 78
one word, Chris: Biophilia
Love it. Thanks Malcolm, had not heard of that word.
Chris, what an awesome project! Our school is in the process of building a natural playground and can’t wait to get the project finished. One thing we learned through researching playgrounds was that kids play on average of 15-20 minutes on a regular commercial type playground. These are stats that the manufacturers publish. Kids will stay engaged in a natural playground setting for 100-110 minutes on average! Plus way fewer injuries.
Hey David – thanks for sharing the photo on Twitter too… if you write about this exciting project, please share it in the comments here as I would love to read about this awesome journey!
Congratulations on your beautiful and inspiring hill. This is a wonderful post, and I thank you.
The Poem Farm
Love it, how amazing, I am off to share this inspiring story & will now tell our staff that we should be very grateful for our sloping wild area in school. In the past year we planted a woodland area with the help of parents & pupils.
Interesting as while our hill was being designed, I would check out schools with hills and slopes already there. Was often excited to see kids playing on them but also disappointed at times because there would be a fence blocking it off. Safety is always a concern but I guess I would love to hear from the schools if not fencing the hill was ever considered (or ways to make it safer). Would love to hear more about your woodland area too!
What wonderful blog post. I agree. Every school needs a hill. I was lucky enough to be able to access a massive rock outcrop as a child in my elementary school. You might enjoy the blog posts about The Coombes School on my website, e.g. http://creativestarlearning.co.uk/developing-school-grounds-outdoor-spaces/geology-at-the-coombes-school/
It would be interesting to see also if the hill has helped improve children’s gross physical motor skills re balance and coordination. For the past 2 years I’ve been a teacher – one day per week – in a school with very steep slopes. When the school was first built, I thought the contractors had got the angles wrong! Actually they have turned out to be great in terms of physical challenge for the children.
Wow… the Coombes School – that is unreal! Shows what can happen when a school sticks to its vision! Thanks for sharing, Juliet!
It’s the natural place for kids to be!