When it comes to elementary school education, one Winter Park Wildcat is taking it outside.
Winter Park High School student Patricia Abely recently was named a finalist in the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, receiving a bronze medallion at the high school.
The award was the result of several weeks of hard work during the summer of 2015, when Abely helped raise the money for an outdoor classroom at Winegard Elementary.
The Winter Park graduate had heard about the school’s desire for an outdoor learning space from her friend’s mother, a counselor at the school.
“She told us that they were looking for some outdoor learning environments to get the students more engaged,” Abely said. “I thought this would be the perfect thing to teach them not just about science and the outdoors but (also) just being a fun place to learn.”
As a longtime Girl Scout, Abely was no stranger to community service. The plans were set in motion in late spring/early summer of that year.
The school had several rundown picnic tables at the back of the campus. Those were restored, repainted green and given a personal touch with student finger paintings of butterflies, flowers and caterpillars.
A butterfly garden was planted near the classroom space as well, complete with labels identifying butterflies and plants.
The $1,500 project was made possible by a fundraising effort Abely organized by hosting a summer camp at her house, where an average of seven children each day took part in crafts and games.
But Abely wasn’t the only one creating an outdoor classroom. Her twin sister Kathryn also took charge of an outdoor amphitheater area with bench seating. She also got some help from Winter Park art students to paint several rocks with animal designs, which were placed throughout the outdoor classroom area.
Students find the rocks in an educational scavenger hunt, where they learn interesting facts about raccoons, bears, eagles and more.
“We placed them all outdoors around the elementary school,” Kathryn said. “They learn the scientific names and everything. It was just a really cool experience with the children.”
Since that summer the Abely sisters made the outdoor classroom a realty, it has grown and evolved. White boards now stand at two locations at the classrooms.
“Now that the white boards are there, teachers are using the outdoor classrooms to instruct,” Winegard Elementary Principal Meigan Rivera said. “It’s very helpful, because then the students have a different learning experience. It gets them engaged in what’s going on, because they’re in a different place than in the classroom at the desks.”
Patricia Abely watches as students wander around the outdoor classroom and take soil samples for a project — learning and having fun all at once. It fills her with a sense of pride, she said.
“It’s probably the most meaningful community service I’ve done in my life,” she said.