Get ’em outside: Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center opens outdoor learning lab

Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center math coach Debbie Schuitema, right, and David Britton, retiring superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, could not keep the students at the from jumping the gun on the ribbon cutting of a new outdoor classroom. (WKTV/K.D. Norris)

By K.D. Norris


There was a classroom full of kids playing outdoors of the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center building Thursday, June 8, as the school district held the grand opening of its new Outdoor Learning Lab.


The adults present — including the incoming superintendents of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools — spoke about the “educational” advantages of the facility. The kids? They just liked being able to climb on things and roll down a hill and dig in the sand.


And that is just the way the two teachers who spearheaded the project — Debbie Schuitema and Julie Swanson — wants it: an outdoor education opportunity that looks a lot like play.


Debbie Schuitema, left, and Julie Swanson. (WKTV)

“Students are naturally curious, and when you bring them out here, without books, when you take a way some of the parameters, and rules and procedures, you allow them to be creative, curious and intuitive,” Schuitema, who teaches math at the center, said to WKTV. “The things they come up with is just amazing, and that leads to more learning. You can take that back inside and build on that.”


The facility, located to the east side of the Early Childhood Center (ECC) building at 961 Joosten SW in Wyoming, includes mostly natural objects which kids can explore and play with: a tree stump, a stone and sand structure, a grassy hill.


And Swanson, a physical education instructor at the center, knows the value of outdoor exercise as part of a student’s educational process.


“Discover yourself through play,” Swanson said. “Just something as simple as which way to you hold a big branch, little side up or big side up? They are learning engineering skills, math skills. … They learn gravity by rolling down a hill. … Really just discovering a new way to learn, but they don’t know they are learning. … (We are just) removing the walls.”


The grand opening event featured permanent and temporary activities such as a mud kitchen, rock grotto, climbing hill, landscape berm, covered gathering space/stage, dead tree stands, Congo drums, weaving loom and log steps.


David Britton, left, and incoming new superintendent Kevin Polston. (WKTV/K.D. Norris)

But the most important things the facility brings is the ability just to be outdoors, according to soon-to-retire district superintendent David Britten, who was present at the event along with the incoming new superintendent Kevin Polston.


“Kids today are spending far too much time indoors — it is a criticism of education in general. We are far too focused on content learning and memorization and test taking,” said Britten, who was a big supporter of the project. “We have lost some of these outdoor areas, places for kids to play in.


“So, as I walked along here a few years back, looking for historical artifacts, I thought: What a great place to have kids come out on a regular basis, and learn,” he said. “Find what native plant species that are here, what are invasive; what kind of birds and animals live in this environment. How can we make it better for them? How can we keep plaster creek clean? How can we protect the environment itself, so we can all enjoy it.”


Aside from the support of the superintendent, other supporters thanked at the facility opening include Women Who Care Grand Rapids, City of Wyoming Public Works, Dykema Excavators, DeWitt Landscape and Design, TonTin Lumber and The Stone Zone.


Special thanks were also given to East Lee students, Lee Middle School students, the Plaster Creek Watershed, Groundswell and — especially — the Godfrey Lee Board of Education.


“So many different people donated their time and energy to this,” said Swanson. “The Godfrey-Lee board of education, allowing us to do this without strings attached — that allowed us to be so creative. We really want to thank our board and our superintendent.”