Preschool children at Kingsland are as excited about the grant as the adults. The Spring Valley Area Community Foundation, in combination with the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation has provided a $6,000 grant to bring nature to students through an outdoor learning project and electronics to elementary school students through a Lego project. Superintendent John McDonald, far left, and Early Childhood Family Education coordinator Ann Priebe, holding right corner of check, were on hand from the school to accept a mock check from foundation board members Sue Kolling, next to McDonald, Deb Zimmer, also at left, along with Jeff Vehrenkamp, right.  DAVID PHILLIPS/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Preschool children at Kingsland are as excited about the grant as the adults. The Spring Valley Area Community Foundation, in combination with the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation has provided a $6,000 grant to bring nature to students through an outdoor learning project and electronics to elementary school students through a Lego project. Superintendent John McDonald, far left, and Early Childhood Family Education coordinator Ann Priebe, holding right corner of check, were on hand from the school to accept a mock check from foundation board members Sue Kolling, next to McDonald, Deb Zimmer, also at left, along with Jeff Vehrenkamp, right. DAVID PHILLIPS/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
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"As children work with natural materials such as pine cones or seed pods and arrange them into patterns or mosaic-like pictures, they develop a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, while strengthening skills in classification and close observation."

- Learning with Nature Idea Book by The National Arbor Day Foundation

Kingsland Elementary School is the recipient of a grant from the Spring Valley Area Community Foundation, which was matched by the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) for a total of $6,000. The money will go toward Kingsland's Lego Project and Nature Explore Program.

Kingsland's outdoor classroom will be in the courtyard located in the center of the elementary school. The Arbor Day Foundation sponsored Nature Explore Program is based on a decade of research by the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, which identified key elements that are now the basis of the program. The intention is to stimulate all the children's senses by using natural materials from the region.

The venture itself will be a community- and school-wide project. The high school horticulture class will be working on the designing aspect with the help of Jennifer Ronneberg. The advanced woods class will be building the raised platform, which will allow teachers to bring their classroom outside. And many parents and local businesses, FFA, local garden clubs and numerous other classes within the district have offered to help.

"You know labor is the biggest cost," Early Childhood Family Education coordinator Ann Priebe says of the outpouring of help that has been offered. "It's going to be a real collaborative effort."

"People can donate money or time, but they can also donate soaker hoses, mulch or plants native to the area. There are simple projects like storage and play areas that need to be built, as well," Priebe clarified. In addition the committee is planning on including a memorial space within the picnic area.

This idea was initially begun by former elementary school teacher Marilyn Erdman and her husband, Rick, who brought the play structure from the original Spring Valley Elementary and lobbied the school board to work on the drainage issue in the courtyard.

"The school really kicked in to re-grade it and put in some drains," explained Priebe.

It was Erdman and Priebe who created the courtyard planning committee.

"We realized it should be more than just two people making decisions. We needed to make sure there were other ideas out there that we were capturing. Administration, the building and grounds director, several elementary teachers and the high school ag teacher are on the committee," stated Priebe.

They began working on the project last fall and decided that instead of just another playground they wanted to make it an outdoor nature classroom.

"There's so much research out there showing children aren't in tune with nature anymore. They spend an average of 38 hours a week outside of school in front of media," Priebe said of the need for such a classroom to help students interact more with nature and their environment.

She is hoping the classroom, which should be completed by June 2014, will provide a space for open-ended play. The materials for play will be natural such as the sensory tables, a dry riverbed and a rain garden.

With Kingsland being a STEM school and Project Lead the Way and a one-to-one iPad school, Priebe believes this nature-based classroom will bring balance to the school's educational structure.

To date the project has also received funds from the District of Soil Conservation with $1,800 and the Astroud-Winter Foundation with $1,500.

Anyone interested in helping the Nature Explore project should contact Priebe at priebe.ann@kingsland.k12.mn.us.

Lego project

While the courtyard project will bring nature to students, the Lego project will bring electronics to the classrooms.

Community Education coordinator Becky Bicknese is spearheading the project, which is part of a nationwide program sponsored by Lego Education. This will be an afterschool program taught by instructors from the University of Minnesota Extension office intended to enrich children, in kindergarten through third grade, with robotic skills.

The program will tie in with the high school's Project Lead the Way program, which focuses on engineering and biomedical science.

Bicknese explained that she is hoping to launch the program by January, depending on when the six kits are received.

"I am excited, it will be fun to see how it all works," Bicknese expressed.