University City

UNCC architecture students build outdoor classroom at Chantilly

Chantilly Montessori school is about to take learning to the streets – or rather, to the outdoors.

The school off Briar Creek Road follows a curriculum that encourages lesson plans which can be taught inside and outside the classroom. Guided by their teachers, children are allowed to explore the outdoors through independent play and activities. The school has several gardens – both food and flower – which the students help cultivate and harvest as part of the curriculum.

The school tries to use every inch of outdoor space surrounding it. But one area has a flooding problem, making it unavailable for the students to use. In looking for a way to solve the problem, Chantilly contacted the UNC Charlotte organization Freedom by Design, which is part of the College of Arts and Architecture. The group takes on one architecture-related community service project each semester; they decided to work with Chantilly during this spring semester.

Alexandra Nelson, a junior at UNCC, is head of Freedom by Design. From the moment the group members met with Chantilly school officials, she said they knew it was a project they could get behind.

“Our goal is to go into the community and help make people’s lives better,” she said. “The (Chantilly) school is so dedicated to their students, and their passion for outdoor learning is amazing. They do it for no other reason than having good intentions. We knew it was something that we wanted to be a part of.”

Nelson said the group had several meetings with teachers and parents to understand their vision for the space. They came to the conclusion that the space could be best used by building an outdoor classroom so the kids could use the space even when it rained.

“Before, if it was raining, the kids couldn’t go over there because it would flood and become all muddy,” said Nelson. “Now, with the classroom built, they can go out there no matter what the weather did to the ground beneath them.”

The structure will look similar to a deck and will have built-in seating and storage space underneath the seats. There will be a wheelchair ramp, pathways and raised garden beds surrounding the deck.

Nelson said the money to pay the project cost about $1,200 and came from school fundraising efforts. Although it didn’t cost much, Nelson said, what she’s taken away from the project is priceless.

“This is my first community project, and I’ve found I really enjoy helping people,” she said. “I don’t think I’d feel fulfilled if I didn’t try and do things like this for the rest of my life.”

Heather Simpson, co-chair of the Outdoor Learning Environment program at Chantilly, said Freedom by Design started building the space April 27 and worked through the rain. They will have finished the project by May 4, she said. The school is grateful for the help of Freedom by Design students.

“The students were just so excited to help and really dedicated to our vision,” said Simpson. “I remember when I was in college, the last thing I would want to do was get up early on a Saturday and work in the rain – but they did (that). And they did it with smiles on their faces.”

Simpson said the classroom is critical to the continuation of the outdoor learning portion of the curriculum, and she believes it’s vital to the growth of the students.

“Outdoor learning teaches them so much more than just the lesson plan,” she said. “When they are working in the gardens, they are not only learning biology and horticulture, but the importance of sustainability and healthy living. These are lessons they can take with them for the rest of their lives.”

The outdoor classroom is part of a larger plan the Outdoor Learning Environment team has in mind. Simpson said they have a 10-year plan that involves not only outdoor classrooms, but a vineyard, larger gardens, natural play areas and habitat observation spaces.

“This is just the first step toward the goal we have in mind,” she said, “but it was an important one. We needed to make our vision a reality, and this classroom is helping us better understand that it’s possible.”