Nahant’s Johnson Elementary takes learning outside of the classroom

Johnson Elementary School students and teachers and students from Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School work together to set up the Forest Playground behind the school. (Spenser R. Hasak)

NAHANT — The Johnson Elementary School has been recognized by the state for taking learning outside of the classroom.

The school was among 32 in the state to receive the 25th Annual Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Peabody’s Captain Samuel Brown School was also a recipient.

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Each year Massachusetts’ Energy and Environmental Affairs divisions assemble to recognize schools and teachers for their outstanding efforts to improve energy and environmental education.

“As we work to address challenges like climate change, it is vitally important that we prepare the next generation to be responsible stewards of the Commonwealth’s environment,” said Governor Charlie Baker in a statement. “Our administration is proud to recognize the outstanding educators who are working to engage students in hands-on educational programs while raising awareness of environmental issues.”

Over the past several years, teachers at the Johnson School have been working on initiatives to integrate the many natural resources found in Nahant into their teaching.

Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center provides more than 25 field trips and laboratory lessons to the school’s students, who collect data on beach erosion, learn about animal adaptations to extreme environments, and build synthetic plankton, said Principal Kevin Andrews.

Safer Waters in Massachusetts (SWIM) provides lessons on water quality testing. This year, SWIM created a day-long festival based on their recently published field guide, Rocks of Nahant, which offered hands-on experiments on rock identification, volcanoes, and fossils. A rock fair was held to teach students about the rocks and materials in their own backyards.

There were a total of 11 stations with each grade rotating between four that pertained to what they are learning in the classroom. At one station, students were tasked with matching the actual rocks photographed in the book with a name tag and photo.

Fifth-grade and science teacher Meredith Tibbo’s station, “Living on the Rocks,” taught students about the creatures and plants that exist on the rocks.

Irvine Plumbing donated and installed a water-bottle filling station  to reduce the school’s use of water. An energy audit was conducted, which will help reduce energy consumption in the near future, said Andrews.

Most recently, the school launched a multi-year effort called the Outdoor Learning and Play Initiative.

Volunteers are working to create new opportunities for outdoor play in the natural environment, and also spaces for formal and informal outdoor learning.

Students, volunteers, and contractors are using the natural elements of the Heritage Trail behind the school to create a forest playground using dirt, wood, rocks, and the landscape to foster imaginative learning and playing.

Preparations for the construction of the playground began a year ago. The area was cleared of trees, poison ivy, and other elements and the kids started moving around logs to get a feel for the park’s design. The children hand-drilled wood to create a fence and helped dig and place logs in holes to create tables and seats.

Using the natural landscape, a slide and a cave will be built into a hill, and logs will be half buried to create barriers, seating, and even tables. Flowers surrounding the slide will be planted by junior gardeners of the Garden Club.

Encouraging the children to create their own play space out of nature promotes social and emotional growth, said Andrews. He envisions young children discovering and taking an interest in unique rocks, and making gnome hats out of acorn tops, and putting them on display on a wooden stump to show their peers.

The school also has an active parent and student Junior Gardeners club, which has installed pollinator gardens, native shade gardens, as well as decorative gardens, and built hives for wild solitary bees.

During three days in May, students at the school will participate in “Outdoor Discovery Days.”

Artist Wes Sam Bruce will be staying in Nahant for the period, working with students on a marine-themed mural behind the school. Other special lessons that week will include learning about edible plants on the Nahant Heritage Trail and planting in the Community Garden. The week will culminate in a mural presentation, a ribbon cutting of the Forest Playground, and folk concert by Alastair Moock.

“In order to teach the next generation the importance of protecting our natural resources, we need to get children outdoors and engaging with nature,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides. “The programs recognized today connect local environmental issues with STEM subjects, preparing students to both think critically and advocate for our environment.”

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