The Amazing Impact of Learning Outside

NKEArb2015-SensoryWritingFor many people, it’s common sense that outdoor education—letting our children learn outside the confines of the classroom—is beneficial for learning. (When you have a wiggly little kindergartner like mine, that’s a no-brainer.) But there is a great body of research supporting this idea, too, and it shows benefits far beyond just science and environmental education. Here are some interesting facts from that research (thanks to the website, which has a great compilation of research on this topic).

  • In one study it was found that when the outdoors was used as a learning environment, there was an increase of 73% “… in the understanding of mathematical concepts and content,” along with a 92% increase in mastery of math skills, and an 89% increase in enthusiasm for studying math.
  • A cross-cultural research study found that the single-most important factor in developing personal concern for the environment was positive experiences in the outdoors during childhood.
  • Outdoor education classrooms are important to supporting the multiple intelligences of all children and are exceptionally suited for meeting the needs of children with emotional and behavioral challenges.
    The bond between an adult and child, along with a child and the environment, is strengthened when an outdoor classroom is used. These bonds help support learning problem-solving skills.
  • Outdoor classroom experiences can lead to gains in social development. Children more easily move away from confrontation with peers in an outdoor environment and are less likely to display lack of cooperation, frustration, and annoyance. Even more, it was found that adults may actually relate differently to children when in an outdoor environment. This is because students are allowed to move more freely and make noise while outside, as compared to inside where they are expected to sit still and remain quiet.
  • While outdoors in nature, a child is more likely to encounter opportunities for decision-making that stimulate problem-solving and creative thinking because outdoor spaces are often more varied and less structured than indoor spaces and induce curiosity and the use of imagination.
  • Not only does the outdoor classroom provide children an opportunity to investigate the natural world, it allows for an environment to conduct group activities where the development of knowledge can occur. Specific skills and concepts are developed in this outdoor environment that connect with authentic, purposeful, and real-life objectives.

These are just a small sampling of the benefits that have been demonstrated. At NKE, we are fortunate to have a wonderful Nature Explore-certified Arboretum outdoor classroom, as well as the new outdoor learning area between NKE and PVE. If you would like to help support the development of either area, we welcome your input! To get involved, please contact Principal Chris Kluck. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation supporting the NKE Arboretum, you can find the donation form on our website here.

Our Big Compost Project

1-16-PullingLeavesWe are extraordinarily proud that in late fall 2015, we were able to restart our cafeteria composting program at NKE. As of mid-December, after only about two months, we had already composted 300 gallons of food scraps from the cafeteria. That is a huge quantity of waste being kept out of the landfill!

Basically at lunch we are collecting fruit, vegetables (the “green” items) and brown napkins. The leaves, pine needles and twigs from the arboretum serve as our “brown” materials and we throw that on top to cover the lunch scraps. The 4th grade service committee members have been taking out the food scraps to the compost bins that were built with NKE Arboretum fund-raising money next to the garage. Some 3rd graders helped rake the Arboretum and haul more leaves to the compost bins to refresh our “brown” supply.

Going forward we are still working to find more adults to take the compost out with the students. (There are many kids who can’t wait to take it out!) We can’t wait to show the kids the gorgeous “dirt” created from their lunchroom scraps.

If you’re interested in learning more about composting, you can check out this useful UW Extension resource.


Outdoor Learning Growing at NKE

10-15-KidsVeggiesFoodPantryIt seems at least once a week there is a new study released demonstrating the positive effects of nature on our lives, whether it is more trees in our neighborhoods leading to less depression or children learning better when they are able to be outside. Here is just a sample of interesting stats:

• Simply spending time outside with nature contributes to increased energy, wards off feelings of exhaustion, and results in a heightened sense of well-being.

• Having a school garden changes eating habits, improves test scores and promotes physical activity, among many other benefits.

• Having vegetation around schools cuts down on air pollution and boosts memory and attention.

• Schools with learning gardens have less teacher turnover.

• Outdoor education classrooms are important to supporting the multiple intelligences of all children, and they are exceptionally suited for meeting the needs of children with emotional and behavioral challenges.

• The single most important factor in developing personal concern for the environment is having positive experiences in the outdoors during childhood.

Here at NKE we are extraordinarily fortunate that now we have not one, but two spaces dedicated to outdoor learning. We have a certified outdoor classroom—the NKE Arboretum—literally within the walls of our school. And now, thanks to the recent referendum, we also have a new outdoor classroom where there recently was an expanse of pavement between NKE and PVE. These spaces are both works in progress. If you are interested in getting involved with continuing improvements in any way, whether you have a great idea for a new project, you are an artist who might be interested in helping create an art installation, or you just love to push wheelbarrows of mulch (hey, it’s possible), please get in touch by emailing Principal Chris Kluck. In the meantime, you can keep tabs on what is going on in the NKE Arboretum by following us on Facebook. Hope to see you soon!

Teaching Healthy Food Choices

Last week my daughter, Elizabeth, came home from school one day, read a list of ingredients on a snack and told her little brother it was good that it didn’t have any high fructose corn syrup! It certainly caught my attention, and it made sense when I found out that a community educator from Stoughton Hospital had been to school to teach the kids about healthy food choices.

This connection came about through a partnership with Stoughton Hospital, which committed to be a “Visionary” supporter (donating at least $1,000) of the NKE Arboretum. As part of our school’s relationship with Stoughton Hospital, educators promote the hospital’s mission of encouraging healthy living in their community.

According to Stoughton Hospital’s Autumn Kumlien, the goals of the education for our NKE students are:

1) Teach children how to make healthful food choices and detect marketing deceptions.

2) Give children the opportunity to practice what they have learned.

3) Empower children to share their “detective skills” with other family members.

Stoughton Hospital uses a program called Nutrition Detectives™, which is geared specifically at elementary school children. Developed by Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, with his wife, Catherine Katz, PhD., it shows the children five clues to use when making food choices. They are great clues for all of us to keep in mind, no matter how old we are! Those five clues are:

1) Don’t be fooled by the big letters on the front of the package. Look for the itty-bitty letters on the food label instead.

2) The first ingredient on the list is always the biggest.

3) Avoid partially hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup. It’s like finding Waldo!

4) Avoid foods with a long ingredient list.

5) Fiber is your friend! Beware of whole-grain imposters. Choose breads, cereals, cereal bars, crackers and pasta with at least 2 grams of fiber.

 Thanks to Stoughton Hospital for supporting our school, our students and our initiatives for outdoor education!

Springing Forward With Gardening at NKE

As I write this, spring fever is setting in and plans for spring gardening are in motion. What a relief after another Wisconsin winter! Seeing the daffodils pushing up through the crunchy brown leaves always seems like a miracle.

At NKE, gardening actually started in March, as groups of students from third and fourth grades did a “winter sowing” project in which seeds are planted in soil in milk jugs, then set outside in the snow. The kids were super enthusiastic about getting their hands in the dirt, planting the seeds and then being set loose in the Arboretum to trod through the snow and place the milk jugs in the sun. Thanks go out to NKE parent Anne Michels for organizing and leading this project! Keep an eye on our Facebook page to see what comes to life in our milk jugs.

Our first NKE Arboretum volunteer party is planned for Saturday, April 25, from 1–4 p.m. Traditionally this is our spring cleanup day, when we rake out beds and tidy up the space. This year some other things on our docket include pulling the (invasive) garlic mustard, installing fronts on our compost bins made out of repurposed wooden pallets, hooking up our rain barrels again (we certainly hope any freezing weather is over by then!) and digging out the area for our new rain garden.

Several people have asked me what a rain garden is. Basically it’s a shallow depression planted with native plants that have extremely deep root systems. Typically you put a rain garden in a place where you want to capture rainwater, diverting it from going down a storm drain. Those deep roots absorb an amazing amount of rain water. This is ideal for a place like the NKE Arboretum, where a large volume of water comes off the roof and causes water problems for the surrounding building.

We’ll hope to see you at our spring volunteer party—come for the whole time or drop in for a half hour. Bring your kids and your work gloves. It’s always fun to see the progress and meet other school families.

As always, you can keep tabs on our progress at and our Facebook page. Happy spring, and happy planting!

Winter Sowing at NKE

WinterSowing1Groups of NKE 3rd and 4th grade students got to participate in the “winter sowing” seed starting project at NKE on March 6! Seeds are started in these milk jugs, which can be set right outside now and act like a mini greenhouse. (You can read more about how winter-sowing works, and how easy it is to do at your own house, here.)

It was so great to see the kids’ enthusiasm for this. Two favorite things overheard during the process: “I love getting my hands dirty!” and “I would totally miss recess for this!” We also had a special visitor: Eileen Wilson, executive director of the Wisconsin Medical Society Foundation (and Oregon resident!) stopped by. We’d like to thank the Foundation again for supporting school gardening at NKE! And, huge thanks to NKE parent Anne Michels for organizing this fun undertaking! You can see more pics of our project in our Facebook album here.


WI Medical Society Grant Supports NKE Gardening

SaraLubbersEsserClass2014-lowresAn important (and exciting) part of our NKE Arboretum is our vegetable garden area. In our first year, in 2012, we built four large raised vegetable beds that were planted by our fourth-grade classes as part of their life science curriculum. We quickly found that other classes wanted to participate, and as a result we added two additional large beds and other smaller raised planters. These days interested classes sign up to “adopt” part of a bed and plant it as soon as weather allows in spring (thanks go out to our school guidance counselor, Sara Lubbers, for coordinating these efforts!).

Kids at school often say the days they worked in the gardens were their favorite days of the whole year, so as our NKE Arboretum group discussed progress this fall, we brainstormed ways we could expand the gardens’ reach despite our space limitations and Wisconsin climate. Ideas included students starting plants from seed indoors and also creating mini “hoop houses” that are basically little greenhouses covering the raised beds so plants can go in the raised beds earlier in spring and stay growing outside later in the fall. We also discussed the fact that water management is always an issue in the Arboretum (a huge amount of water drains off the school roof into that courtyard) and the possibility of creating a rain garden.

That left the question of how to fund these new efforts, and I have great news on that front: We recently received notice that we have been awarded a $1,000 educational grant from the Wisconsin Medical Society Foundation supporting our school gardening efforts! We’d like to thank the WMSF for recognizing the importance of school gardening on student wellness. With their support, we’ll be able to continue expanding the reach of outdoor education for children at NKE. Keep an eye on our Facebook page at www.facebook/com/NKEArb for updates on progress! And, as always, if you’d like to get involved in any way, please contact NKE Principal Dan Rikli at

NKE Arboretum Becomes Nature Explore Certified

NatureExploreCertificationRight before our winter break we got the exciting news that the NKE Arboretum had earned certification as a Nature Explore outdoor classroom. Nature Explore is a collaborative program of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation that works to transform children’s lives through science-based outdoor classroom design. This certification is a goal we had been working on for two-and-a-half years now, so it’s fair to say we were thrilled to get the news. We are only the second classroom in Wisconsin to receive this honor!

A little background: Our NKE Arboretum space had been worked on here and there over its many years, but by spring 2012, it was more notable for the amount of brambles and weeds growing there than its usefulness as an educational space. At the suggestion of NKE parent Christine Koth, a small group of parents (OK, to be precise, Christine and I) met with a small group of staff. Consensus was that we were fortunate to have this wonderful space in our school, but we certainly weren’t taking advantage of it to help educate our kids.

Things moved quickly from there and haven’t stopped since. We decided to use the guidelines from Nature Explore as our blueprint for transforming the space. A local landscape architect donated his time to create a rendering, and we’ve been chipping away at that rendering ever since as time and donations have allowed. With the installation of our “tree cookie patio” this fall we completed all the major site requirements. That, combined with some staff attending a Nature Explore seminar about best practices for outdoor education, allowed us to earn certification.

I would like to send out a big thank you to everyone who has contributed to this project in any way. The support we’ve received not just from staff and families but also various groups in our community has been fantastic, and seeing our children outside learning in the space is even better.

Although we received certification, we aren’t done yet! We still have a long list of improvements we’ll be working on this spring, including improved path surfaces and installing a rain garden, and we’re expanding our vision beyond the Arboretum walls to the sustainability of our entire school (that’s a topic for a future blog post). If you’d like to get involved, please email Principal Dan Rikli at; we’d love to have you. Keep in mind that you can follow us on our Facebook page, too.

Busy Fall 2014 at NKE Arboretum

 I’m happy to report that we’ve had a great end to 2014 in the NKE Arboretum. In a little more than two years we’ve seen this fantastic space inside our school transform from a little-used, overgrown courtyard to a beautiful natural area that is a part of daily school life. Some of the highlights from this fall include:

• Students harvested produce from the gardens they planted last spring.

• Some of the classes put their own produce to work by making and trying salsa.

RobinBoysTreeCookies-forweb• We participated in the Green Apple Day of Service on Sept. 22. This is a worldwide event coordinated by the U.S. Green Building Council dedicated to making our schools greener. At the NKE Arboretum, volunteers built a “tree cookie” patio and did general cleanup. Many thanks to the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance for their mini-grant supporting our efforts!

• We succeeded in raising enough money for and constructing permanent compost bins in the parking lot that will handle cafeteria compost from NKE and PVE. That’s a huge amount of waste that will be put to good use instead of going into a landfill!

BinsAlmostBuiltDanRobin-forwebWe’ll be busy over the winter months doing planning and fund-raising so that when spring arrives, we’ll be ready. Some priorities we’ve already identified include improving the path surfaces, building a rain garden, creating hoop houses for our garden beds and providing more education and support for our staff to integrate outdoor learning into their very busy days.

Many people don’t realize that the NKE Arboretum improvements are supported solely by donations and grants (and lots of volunteer sweat equity, of course!). If you’d like to make a financial donation supporting outdoor learning at NKE, you can always download the donation form here on our website. Every single donation makes an impact and is tax-deductible. (Making a donation in honor of a favorite teacher or staff member would be a great holiday gift!)

Thanks to all the staff, parents and students who have worked hard to improve our outdoor classroom space in 2014! If you’d like to get involved, please email Principal Dan Rikli at

The Kids Make Salsa!




For today’s blog we have some info straight from teacher Andrea DeNure about the recent salsa-making activity with the produce from our NKE Arboretum gardens planted by the kids last spring:

We used tomatoes, peppers, parsley, and onions from our K-1-2 raised garden bed. Ahead of time, Sara Lubbers harvested them for us so they were ready to use. Half of our K-1-2 friends looked at some great vegetable and salsa books and worked on fun word searches, while the other half began prepping! Kiddos worked in small groups with an adult to halve tomatoes, chop up onions, pick apart parsley, and cut up peppers. They helped put everything into bowls and watched the magic happen when everything was dumped into the food processor to make our salsa! Our friends LOVED making salsa, and they did a great job of being clean when handling all of the food products and really stepping up to help!

We’ll eat and enjoy another day soon after the salsa has been chilled.


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