Outdoor Learning Inspires Shady Side Academy Country Day School Students

At Shady Side Academy Country Day School in Fox Chapel, classes have never been limited by walls. Teachers in all grades and disciplines take lessons outside, where students can engage with nature and explore the world around them.

SSA Country Day School sits on 17 acres of wooded parkland, offering endless outdoor learning opportunities. In addition to a playground, athletic field and garden, the campus includes an outdoor classroom and a new treehouse classroom nestled in the woods.

“We view our outside spaces as an extension of our classrooms,” said Dr. Jennifer Asmonga, head of Country Day School. “Each day the forest and hillside provide new and exciting experiences for students to explore. Outdoor exploration enables children to be creative and utilize problem-solving skills in an authentic environment.”

The treehouse classroom, which opened last May, is the only one of its kind in Western Pennsylvania. It features a 12×20-foot enclosed classroom with Murphy tables and large windows that provide fresh air and natural light. A 30×30-foot observation deck surrounds the classroom, and a suspension bridge runs to a platform on a neighboring tree.

Country Day’s teachers take full advantage of the treehouse, outdoor classroom and woods as learning spaces year-round. In science, second, fourth and fifth graders use the treehouse as a geology lab, collecting and analyzing rock and soil samples, while third graders study the layers of the forest by observing birds and caterpillars in the canopy, searching for bugs and salamanders in the woods, and building habitat terrariums.

In language arts, students take nature walks and use the sights and sounds of the woods as inspiration for writing nature poetry. After fifth graders read the book Hatchet about a teen surviving on his own in the wilderness, they reenact the character’s experience by building a shelter in the woods and cooking on a backpacking stove.

In art class, students study and recreate the colors, patterns and textures of nature and gather natural materials such as leaves and flowers to create artwork.

Music classes have found the shady wooden stairs of the treehouse to be a perfect spot for singing, and enjoy swaying on the suspended bridge when singing in 6/8 meter. The outdoor classroom is a perfect spot for campfire-style singalongs, too.

Students also benefit from the Academy-wide SSA Farm program, a PK-12 sustainability education initiative. The Country Day School campus features a U-shaped garden bed that students help to maintain, beginning seedlings in the science lab and transplanting them to the garden, and harvesting fresh veggies to make salads and salsa. They also visit the 4,000-square-foot farm on the SSA Senior School campus just across the road to observe firsthand how bees aid in pollination and how chickens provide nutrients and control insects.

To learn more about Shady Side Academy Country Day School, visit www.ShadySideAcademy.org/CountryDaySchool or call 412-963-1277. Register now for January pre-kindergarten and kindergarten readiness screening for the 2019-2020 school year.