Living schoolyard at SAGES comes to life thanks to volunteers

Gloria Hafemeister
Volunteers Ron Daane and Brian Tenpas, left, work on building a construction table that students will use to build things in their outdoor classroom and play ground. Assisting them is physical education teacher Jackie Clark.

FOX LAKE – A dream is becoming reality for students, teachers and supporters of SAGES (School for Agricultural and Environmental Studies) in the Waupun Area School District.

SAGES is a 4-K-6 public charter school located in Fox Lake. The unique school with a project-based agricultural and environmental focus opened its doors and has been thriving since the fall of 2012.

Last weekend with help from more than 30 local volunteers –some of the school’s original students  – saw the dream they had for a “living schoolyard” develop into just what they envisioned.

The weekend of work was planned to resemble an old-fashioned “barn raising” but since the restrictions due to COVID-19. organizers needed to scale back a bit and spread out the workers. That didn’t stop the volunteers from showing up to help though.

The workday involved only adults and no students but a couple of high school students who were a part of the original plan five years ago rolled up their sleeves to assist. Current students will participate in the next work day to help complete the project that has been in the works for about five years.

The outdoor classroom and playground was initiated back in 2015 by a team of SAGES fifth graders who will now be entering their Junior year at Waupun Jr./Sr. High School. 

The plan for SAGES playground/outdoor classroom includes a jungle gym built with black locust trees.  Tractor tires stacked provide climbing opportunities.  John LaPoint of GRG Playscapes assisted the volunteers.

Delays and uncertainty held up the project but the students and staff never gave up on the idea of the legacy and it was re-launched last December when a group of fifth graders at the school contacted GRG Playscapes in Milwaukee to present their ideas.

John LaPoint president of GRG, a company that specializes in nature-based play revolutions, said he was surprised and impressed by the phone call. 

He says, “I was very surprised to have the children call me. It’s the first time in the fifteen years we’ve been in business that this has happened.”

The students had obviously rehearsed what they would tell him and they had all the ideas of what they hoped to see in their living schoolyard. They viewed it as an outdoor nature-based play/learning environment that would be useful in promoting physical activity, imaginative play, healthy risk-taking, connections to nature and a sense of community.

Volunteer Debbie Killins (DJ), left, and Becky Panzer, a kindergarten teacher at SAGES are busy sanding pieces of wood that will be used by students for building projects.

Together the students and LaPoint figured out a way his company could help them and remain within the school’s limited budget. His company’s specialty is building play grounds in parks, at day-cares and at schools using natural materials. 

 The kids presented him with their ideas and a map of how they would like the playground-outdoor classroom to look.

“Our role is to take the plan the kids came up with and help to build the structural items with safety features and practicality," LaPoint said. "Our experience with building this type of playground helped them in locating materials they needed and coordinated what they needed.”

He says they told him they wanted places to climb, jump, and explore. SAGES students also pointed out that they wanted to use natural materials and recycled farm items like tractor tires. The plan will even include a recycled 24-foot diameter grain bin.

The playground includes a jungle gym built with black locust trees, a tree native to Wisconsin that also tends to be invasive.

“It’s what we’re all about,” says LaPoint. “It’s a way to repurpose something people want removed. It’s a strong wood that should last for years in the playground.”

The final phase of the outdoor development will be converting the grain bin donated to the group by FS. The bin will serve as a “gazebo style” shelter that provides shade and can be used as an outdoor classroom, play space or for other outdoor gatherings.

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Students received help from engineers at MSA in Beaver Dam who teamed up with them on the project. MSA staff will work with the students to teach them the engineering processes involved in building the structure. It’s a great hands-on way for students to explore numerous careers, said Sherry Hicken, Ag Educator at SAGES.

Hicken along with a volunteer team of teachers at SAGES, including Principal Julie Schmidt, met weekly during the summer to plan the work days and bring everything together.

Schmidt says they are extremely grateful to the many community individuals, businesses, and organizations like Wisconsin Women for Agriculture and others for their generous monetary gifts and support in the form of donations, time, talent and services.

“Without that support, our “living Schoolyard” project wouldn’t be as dynamic or be becoming reality,” Schmidt said.