After years of planning and fundraising, the Chester Arthur School has opened Philadelphia’s first STEM outdoor learning environment, called the Arthur Schoolyard.
The schoolyard project involved the conversion of an asphalt playground into the largest public green space in the South Philadelphia neighborhood, serving as an outdoor classroom for Arthur students and a space where students and community members can engage in structured and unstructured play.
“This project has truly been a labor of love for those involved, and our hope is that this project will serve as a model for other District schools and neighborhood organizations similarly interested in developing outdoor, interactive spaces that center communities and enrich the educational experience of our city’s students,” said Shannon Braden, incoming co-president of Friends of Chester Arthur (FoCA), a nonprofit formed by parents and community members in the school's neighborhood.
The space is considered to be an interactive play and learning lab, and it includes four play labs – Systems, Energy, Motion, and Habitat – as well as sensory walls to aid children with disabilities. Chester Arthur teachers are working with the College of New Jersey to develop project-based curricula in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) that use the schoolyard.
“My students have had an amazing reaction to the schoolyard," said Susan Myers, a 2nd-grade teacher. "They have all become participants in their learning. The schoolyard has become an environment to learn by doing.
“They are connecting what they are reading to what they are experiencing in the schoolyard. The reaction to this has been overwhelmingly positive, as all students are deeply involved and learning.”
The schoolyard project was first announced last June, and construction began that month. Funds for the construction – which cost nearly $1.7 million – came from parents' and community members' contributions, as well as various grants. FoCA, which helped to secure virtually all of the funding, obtained $232,000 in grants from the Philadelphia Water Department’s Stormwater Management Incentives Program, a $110,000 grant from Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiatives program, and a $1.1 million grant from the William Penn Foundation.
Mayor Kenney and Superintendent William Hite both attended the schoolyard's official opening on June 16, giving remarks and participating in a ribbon-cutting.
Braden said that the classroom will allow teachers to employ new, exciting styles of teaching.
“Arthur students will not only learn math in class, but their teachers can use the same basketball court where students engage in gross-motor play to demonstrate the X and Y axes," she said. "Or a teacher can augment a conversation in class about the Earth's rotation and changing seasons with an opportunity for students to use the sundial in the schoolyard.
“The schoolyard will not only reinforce classroom learning, it will inspire it.”