Rhode Island teacher transforms conservation land into outdoor classroom

East Bay

BARRINGTON, R.I. (WPRI) — The coronavirus pandemic has forced teachers to rethink how they organize their students’ learning space.

Mark Whittaker, a 5th grade teacher at Hampden Meadows School in Barrington, saw the challenges COVID-19 brought with it as an opportunity to create his own outdoor classroom.

Whittaker said he is able to see collaboration, the very crux of the 5th-grade curriculum, that has been stifled because of COVID-19.

“Every time I turned around there was just people having a good time and playing in the woods,” Whittaker said. “Collaborating on things, with each other, is harder for us to do because we can’t get into that physical space with people.”

That collaboration, he said, is what brought his vision to life. He took the conservation land behind the school and turned it into a huge outdoor classroom.

“I just knew we needed to do something with this space here,” Whittaker said.

He went to someone he knew could do something about it ─ Barrington Town Councilor Steve Boyajian.

“I thought the faster, the better,” Boyajian said.

Boyajian fast-tracked the project, getting approval from the Open Space Committee, then the town manager, and finally Department of Public Works Superintendent John Renquinha.

“I knew that the way to accelerate it was to get John and his team out here with the big machines,” Boyajian said.

The week before the start of the school year, Renquinha’s team cleared storm damage and overgrowth and took down dead trees, paving the way for 90 stumps as seats, which make up three classrooms.

“We felt that this was important,” Renquinha said. “Especially getting them out here and it was a good idea.”

Each stump is 6-feet apart, with pods 14-feet apart. The project didn’t interfere with the bike jumps the space was famously known for prior to the makeover.

“I was like on cloud nine, I was skipping through the streets,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker and seven or eight other teachers put the space to use for the first time last week.

“They come back and the kids are thrilled,” he said. “The teachers just have the biggest grin on their face and that’s all I wanted.”

Now that construction is complete, the students will be tasked with caring for the space and naming it, which will take place in the form of a contest.

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