A new outdoor classroom has been unveiled at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School this week.

Students from the Grade 10 leadership and outdoor education classes have spent months transitioning the school’s courtyard into a dedicated space for outside learning. They held a grand opening June 17.

Christine Carr, who teaches the leadership class, said she brainstormed with students early in the new year to come up with a project that would make a difference in the school community. She said the courtyard had been neglected and unused for several years and the students saw an opportunity to give it a new life.

Aurora Wesley, Jordanna Jennings, Hazel Jones, Freyja Neimann-Rowe, and Rosie Lafleur launched a committee to engage with other students to see what they wanted in the new space.

“They’ve been working basically since the snow melted, cleaning it up and turning it into something that can be utilized by students throughout the school day,” Carr said, noting the classroom can host up to 30 students and be booked by teachers.

Wesley said there are three primary components to the space – a learning circle complete with tree stumps for classes to gather, a garden overflowing with perennials and other colourful flowers, and three picnic tables where students can complete classwork.

Jones said the quintet wanted to establish an outdoor classroom after spending time outside during their Grade 9 English class last year.

“Our teacher, Mr. Collins, had us read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and we got to do it out in the forest. We all had so much fun and being outside helped us to think more clearly and be more engaged,” Jones said. “It made us think ‘what if we have a space to be able to do this more, and for other classes to be able to do it too’.”

The project cost the students nothing but time – the picnic tables were donated by Emmerson Lumber and Haliburton Timbermart, decorative stones by Algonquin Highlands township, wood chips by Boshkung Lake Tree Service, and other materials from Hawk River Construction. Abbey Gardens helped students analyze soil conditions and select plants for the garden.

Principal Jenn Mills said she was blown away by the courtyard’s transformation, noting it had been largely unused since the 1990s.

“Everyone I talk to says things like ‘when I went to school, fixing up the courtyard is what I wanted to do too’, and it’s the same with me when I was a student here. We’ve all wanted to see that space being used,” Mills said. “With the vision of these ladies and help of teachers in the classroom, it’s all come together into an amazing space that we’re really excited about.”

A second phase of the project will be completed later this year, Mills said. A ramp is being reconstructed to make the courtyard wheelchair accessible. Paved pathways will also be installed, along with a land acknowledgement plaque that will be supplied by HHSS’ tech class.

Wesley said the students hope to work with school staff to come up with a fitting name, “We’re flip-flopping between a lot of names right now. We want to come up with something iconic, that best represents the space,” Wesley said.