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Treehouse classroom helps students find inspiration outside

Kristine Sorensen
June28/ 2018

School’s out, and that means kids are playing outside a lot more, but one local school is taking a unique approach to educating outside.  They built a treehouse classroom — one of only a few like it in the country.

Perched high among the treetops, you find this classroom in an unsuspecting place.  The tree trunks become support beams; bark becomes wallpaper, and the breeze is nature’s air conditioning.  The fifth graders say it’s easy to find inspiration up in the treehouse classroom at Shady Side Academy Country Day School in Fox Chapel.

Fifth-grader Tommy Kann says, “You can just look out and see green leaves and leaves quietly falling to the ground and hear rustling of the leaves.”  Another student, Ella Hubbard, says, “I was just sitting here, and I felt a gust of wind in my pigtails, well buns,” she says, laughing about her special hairstyle that inspired her to write her poem about the wind.  Her friend, Sophia Gambos, wrote about the trees: “The vibrant colors of the petals glistening in the sun. Vines growing up the trees like a scarf circling up your neck.”

From quiet contemplation to bouncing on the bridge, the kids love the treehouse, suspension bridge, and lookout.  This is a dream come true for Head of School, Sharon Smith, after whom “Mrs. Smith’s Lookout” was named. It took two years for fundraising, architectural plans, and construction.  “It really does open up their ability to think and share ideas and feel freer with those ideas,” Smith says.  “When you put children inside a classroom with four walls and a ceiling and floor, you’re going to box in their thinking; box in the teacher’s creativity in sharing ideas with them as well,” Smith explains.

The teachers here, from pre-k through fifth grade, have always used their 30 acres of forest for learning, but this offers a new perspective.  Science teacher Margie Meintzleman, says the treehouse is “a magical, different world up in the trees, and you can see the canopy, and get all, different, fresh eyes on nature.”

In addition to obvious connections in subjects like science and writing classes, the school also plans to have art and music, even math and history classes in the treehouse.  Fifth-grade teacher Michael Commendatore says, “There are a lot of studies showing what the fresh air and what nature can do.  It rejuvenates the brain faster.  It gives more energy.”

Part of what the kids will learn is living with the elements. The treehouse classroom is not climate controlled so in the wintertime, the students will put on their coats and come out to learn in sun, rain or snow.   Parent Dana West says she hopes her son and the other students will learn “that we can be outdoors when it’s moist, that we don’t melt, that this is all part of the experience and can be enjoyable.”

“Wind is the music of the trees. It is everywhere,” reads Hubbard from her nature poem.  From the wind blowing through pigtails to ants crawling up trees, nature is an open textbook ready to teach kids who want to learn.

Kristine Sorensen

I am proud to work at KDKA-TV -- anchoring the news, hosting Pittsburgh Today Live and doing special reports. I am married to KDKA reporter Marty Griffin and we have 3 children. I first moved to Pittsburgh in 1999 but I’ve lived in Dallas, Johnson City, Tenn., Chicago, Williamsburg, Va., Milwaukee and Winter Park, Fla. Pittsburgh is now the place I call home.

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