Shady Side Academy takes learning outdoors

At Shady Side Academy’s two elementary schools, classes are not limited by walls. Teachers in all grades and disciplines take lessons outside, where students engage with nature and explore the world around them.

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

“We view our outside spaces as an extension of our classrooms,” said Dr. Jennifer Asmonga, interim head of Country Day School. “Outdoor exploration enables children to be creative and utilize problem-solving skills in an authentic environment.”

The only one of its kind in Western Pennsylvania, the treehouse features a 12×20-foot enclosed classroom with Murphy tables, a 30×30-foot observation deck and a suspension bridge that runs to a lookout platform.

Country Day’s teachers take full advantage of the treehouse as a learning space. Science classes use it as a geology lab to analyze rock and soil samples or to study the layers of the forest. In language arts, the treehouse serves as inspiration for writing nature poetry. Music classes find the treehouse stairs to be a perfect spot for singing.

Likewise, at SSA Junior School in Point Breeze, outdoor learning is an integral part of the school day. The seven-acre campus includes three playgrounds, an athletic field, educational gardens, and a wooded hillside.

“We believe that children should always have the opportunity to be outside,” said Junior School Head Ellen McConnell Sanderson. “One of the beautiful things about our campus is that it allows children’s imaginations to run free. They chase unicorns, look for spiderwebs, build forts and sled down the hill in winter.”

The campus sits adjacent to Frick Park with off-street access to its acres of woods and trails. In PE classes, students hike and run the trails regularly. In science, students study the water cycle in the park. In art, students create fairy doors to add to the park’s collection. After-school programs utilizing the park include a cross country team, Girls on the Run team and enrichment classes.

Both campuses benefit from the unique SSA Farm program, a sustainability initiative integrated into the PK-12 curriculum.

The Junior School has five garden beds and several chickens, which students help to care for. Science classes utilize the farm to study plant life cycle, beneficial insects, nutrient cycling and taking food from seed to plate. Pre-kindergarteners harvest food from the garden for cooking lessons related to their “Letter of the Week” curriculum.

Country Day School students help to plant and maintain a U-shaped garden. They begin seedlings in the science lab and transplant them to the garden, and harvest fresh veggies for salads and salsa. They also visit the 4,000-square-foot Senior School farm across the street to observe how bees aid in pollination and chickens help to control insects.

Learn more about Shady Side Academy’s elementary campuses at RSVP for October open houses at