Like ants, elementary students of the Robert Service School (RSS) in Dawson City marched off of a school bus carrying large rocks from the dredge tailings, placing them in the corner of the school yard.

The 350m2 space, previously poorly drained and underutilized, has become an outdoor classroom called Take it Outside.

Take it Outside was designed as a place for gathering and storytelling, a large aspect of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in culture. It features a variety of local and native flora, a fire pit surrounded by benches, and a wall tent for the winter months

A berm surrounds the fire pit, acting as a small amphitheatre that students can sit and play on.

The outdoor classroom was the brainchild of the Hän language teacher Melissa Hawkins and cultural education liaison coordinator for Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation Jill Delaney.

For Hawkins and Delaney, the project was about creating a natural, comfortable space for knowledge to be shared.

“It’s about creating a space that bridges the gaps between the current curriculum to include Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s once known traditional knowledge of the land we live on,” says Hawkins.

For Hawkins, it is also about understanding the history of residential schools and challenging the preconceived notion of what a classroom is, creating a space that elders feel free to sit and talk to students in.

“Our traditional knowledge was an oral-based knowledge passed from generation to generation, not written,” says Hawkins. “So taking the learning environment from sitting in desks out to a space where everyone is sitting in a circle around a fire pit mimics that traditional passing of knowledge.

“It’s more circular and everyone is equal in the group.”

The project gathered momentum after the school received $5,000 from the World Wildlife Fund last fall, and another $3,000 from the Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds Funding Program in late winter.

A team of professionals passionate about landscape architecture was recruited to lend expertise.

John Lenart of the Klondike Valley Nursery was brought on to the project for his acute knowledge of local and native trees and plants, landscape architect Mike Crelli sculpted the contours of the site, Gary Gammy of Gammie Trucking donated topsoil and gravel, and Alpine Arctic Seed provided wild grass and flower seed.

Hawkins and Delaney involved the Grade 3 students in the design process by taking them on tours of landscaped areas in town and brainstorming ideas of what an outdoor classroom should be before the students drew up their own plans.

“They had lots of different ideas of what education was,” says Hawkins. “At first their idea of education remained in that indoor cubicle, and then it evolved from there to include features you would see in an outdoor environment.”

Miranda Adam of Little Lady Landscape Design and Drafting in Whitehorse incorporated the plans and wish lists of the students into the final plan.

In addition, the Grade 9 and 10 shop classes designed and built the benches and pergola adorning the entrance to the classroom.

A sign carved by Warren Langley will be donated by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation for the final unveiling at the beginning of the school year in August, once all the plantings have taken hold.

The project is part of a five-year plan to expand the space to include a natural playground—a space composed of natural materials and vegetation that the students can play in as an alternative to the existing playground.

For Hawkins, Take it Outside, as it is appropriately named, is also about accessibility

“Instead of reading in the classroom, why not take it outside? Any time there is a discussion or when things are being done without a desk, why not take it outside to that space, for whatever subject is being taught,” says Hawkins.

“This is just the beginning for the outdoor classroom—it will continue to evolve and grow into something so much bigger than any of us had thought.”