Winchester Thurston Elementary students help plan, construct outdoor learning area

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 9:54 p.m.

Students at Winchester Thurston School are learning to become trailblazers.

Students in prekindergarten through the fifth grade are planning and constructing the three-quarter-mile Northbound Trail, an interpretive and educational trail that winds its way through the seven acres of Winchester Thurston's north campus in Hampton Township.

The project is the brainchild of Steve Cooper, physical education teacher at the school. As a self-proclaimed “outdoor advocate,” he often took students into the woods during the school's summer camp and recognized the potential for the land.

His idea finally became a reality in the fall of 2011 when students, armed with shovels and rakes, dug into the earth to establish the trail.

“There was a lot of support, and there was a lot of excitement for it,” Cooper said.

And the excitement continues.

After students helped to map out where the trail will go, the Winchester Thurston staff worked together to create educational sections of the trail that will tie into the curriculum.

There will be a ropes course, a recycling graveyard and a poison-ivy garden, which will help students learn to identify and stay away from the itchy plant.

Students in prekindergarten through the first grade can play on the fairy tale trail and learn about winged creatures. Students in third and fourth grade will bring their language- arts lessons to life in the pioneer village by building a log cabin and sitting around the fire pit.

“This is a natural fit for this campus,” said Jill Fetzer, director of Winchester Thurston's north campus, about the Northbound Trail.

“We're always looking for dynamic cross-curricular ways to keep the students' interest alive.”

Cooper said teachers are working together to create the interactive waypoints and wilderness journals that are class and lesson specific. He also hopes to incorporate QR codes that can be scanned and will take students to a website with information about an aspect of the trail.

“Kids could go up three times per day with different teachers and have a very different experience,” he said.

The feedback from the students about their backyard school trail has been more than positive. Students excitedly zip up jackets, put on boots and grab gloves when they are told by teachers that class will be on the trail.

“It's fun because usually in PE if it's not cold, we go back there, play games, roast marshmallows, clean up leaves,” said fifth-grader Pryce Wilojanapa of Fox Chapel.

Students also are gaining firsthand experience of the pioneer stories they read. As third- and fourth-grade students were constructing the log cabin, one student commented that the adze, a tool, was heavier than it looked in the book.

“It's taking the curriculum out of the classroom,” Cooper said. “They're learning, engaged and engaged to the point they forgot they were in school.”

Today, the trail is about one-third complete, but Cooper said the trail never will be finished. He sees the trail continue to evolve and develop as classes move through the school and students bring new ideas and imaginations to the wooded area.

Eventually, the Winchester Thurston staff hope the trail will become a community asset for other groups.

“It's cool because it's going to be here for years to come,” said fifth-grader Frazer Hilliard, of Fox Chapel. “And other people will be able to play on it, and (I'll) know I helped.”

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or

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