Fifth graders help envision outdoor education at Bernardston Elementary


For the Recorder

Published: 08-04-2023 4:25 PM

BERNARDSTON — Bernardston Elementary School fifth graders put their thinking caps on to imagine a school campus with ziplining and parkour courses.

The brainstorming marked the first step in retired Pioneer Valley Regional School teacher John Lepore’s plan to envision the 4.3 acres of town-owned wooded wetland and 3.7 acres of farmland surrounding Bernardston Elementary School, with a goal of preserving it for outdoor education. Putting pen to paper, the fifth graders also got to display their drawings at the Bernardston Senior Center from July 24 to July 28.

“We talked about what kinds of things they would like to have on that site, because they’re the ones who really matter; they’re the ones that are using it,” Lepore said after his roundtable presentation on the exhibit at the Senior Center on Wednesday.

Over three weeks in May and June, Lepore worked with fifth graders from two classrooms, guiding them through the forests of the two areas while teaching its history and nature, including “how the plants tell you the story of what’s going on in the ground.” Next, Lepore laid out large blank maps for the kids to draw their “nature-based designs” for the sites. Slides, ziplines, monkey bars, fossil centers, reading swings, look-out towers and even a parkour course for kids to leap from stump to stump filled their visions for the outdoor spaces.

“What I liked about this approach is the way the kids worked together as teams,” Lepore said. “They did an amazing job and they asked great questions.”

Lepore predicts the engineering process for the outdoor areas will start next summer, “but that’s being very hopeful.” For the work to start, Lepore said the school district must wait to hear about whether it receives a grant from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation that could range from $20,000 to $40,000. For the remaining cost, he said, “We’d probably be able to get any supplemental money for this project through in-kind services.”

“We already have a ton of volunteers that want to come in and help out with this project,” he said, “so it shouldn’t cost the town a dime.”

Next, Lepore said the school district must sign a lease agreement with the town and obtain permits from the Conservation Commission in compliance with the Wetlands Protection Act.

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“It’s conceptual at this point,” Lepore explained. “These are the first steps. There’s a lot of little pieces that need to happen.”

In the meantime, Lepore plans to hold more community meetings digging into the potential details and designs as the project unfolds, including a follow-up presentation at the Senior Center on Monday, Sept. 18, at 3:30 p.m.

In addition to working with Bernardston students, Lepore collaborated with preschoolers and sixth graders at Northfield Elementary School on a similar outdoor education project. The preschoolers created 3-D models of their ideas for learning outside.

Although just beginning, the project is a culmination of Lepore’s 30-year career as a seventh grade science teacher at Pioneer. With only a few books on birds, trees and flowers in his classroom and more than 100 students when he started in 1981, Lepore turned to the outdoors.

“I get a lot of former students who come back and say, ‘Hey, this made a difference in terms of making me aware of what’s out there,’ and that’s the kind of thing we want to see,” Lepore said.

To the retired teacher, the value of outdoor education persists. During his presentation, Lepore said, “Problems with attention, problems with physical fitness, willingness to go outside, there are many kids who, unless they have one of these in front of them,” he said as he picked up his phone, “they don’t know how to play. The idea is to get kids outside, get them engaged, not just for teaching and learning, but learning how to play outside.”

While teaching at Pioneer, Lepore wrote a comprehensive management plan for the land surrounding the school. According to Lepore, this plan inspired Superintendent Patricia Kinsella to reach out to him about his current land design project. He is now working on a book for Bernardston Elementary and Northfield Elementary titled “Pioneer Valley Regional School District Trilogy in Stewardship Management” that will have a “site-specific management plan that not only analyzes what’s there, what the conditions are, but also what needs to happen to be able to utilize it.”

“I’ll be putting the community process, the kids’ process in these books,” Lepore said, “because it’s important for people to see this is multigenerational.”