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Thinking Outside the Classroom

Avon Outdoor Learning Center Teaches Students in a Fun Environment

Writer  /  Heather Chastain

A rare resource is helping Avon students learn outside the classroom. The Avon Outdoor Learning Center is only one of five outdoor classrooms across the country. The 7-acre gem includes a garden and is located behind Maple Elementary off U.S. Highway 36.

The Outdoor Learning Center was developed in the 1980s by former Maple Principal Mr. Winger. The area was a dumping ground, but Mr. Winger saw the area for what it could be. Now the OLC has two miles of trails, hundreds of trees, wildlife, bridges and a cabin. The cabin was donated by an Avon family in 1999.

Since its inception, the OLC has relied heavily on volunteers like Carol Ford. Ford came to the OLC in 1995.

“I fell in love with this place,” Ford says. “My goal from the beginning was to make this safe. That was my whole purpose. I wanted to make it safe, widen the trails and make teachers feel safe coming out here.”

Unfortunately, students weren’t coming as much as Ford wanted them. She said she began to pray for someone who could take it to the next level and teach the kids.

As fate would have it, Jennifer Davies was moving from Missouri to Indiana and stumbled across the OLC on Avon’s website.

“We were looking at school systems, and I came across Avon,” she says.  “It had all the right things for your kid starting kindergarten, and I stumbled across the Outdoor Learning Center. I was so surprised a public school had something like this, and I knew I had to be involved.”

She began as a volunteer 11 years ago and is now an employee of Avon Schools. The OLC is wholly funded by donations, grants and fundraising, requiring Davies to raise half of her salary.

Davies work at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, and a university gave her the right tools to set standards based learning in the outdoor learning center so she could help teachers connect what was happening in their classroom with the outdoors.

“This has been a blood, sweat and tears endeavor,” Davies says. “This is us just being passionate. The lowest point for us was when the referendum in Avon failed and our budget was cut – all $18,000 of it. And the community rallied around us and helped us raise enough money.”

Davies says the students are investing in the OLC too.

“I’ve had kids come up to me and say, ‘I lost two teeth this summer and this is the tooth fairy money and I want to give it to the OLC.’ And I’m like, ‘okay, if you’re giving until it hurts, I’m going to give until it hurts,’” she says.

The women say they are now seeing former students come back to visit the OLC with their children who are now students.

“It’s awesome to see this full generation of kids have enjoyed OLC as its reaching its potential, and the connection the kids have to this space is pretty profound,” Davies says.

Last school year more than 10,200 students took part in the educational programs provided by the OLC. Ford and Davies credit some community partners for their involvement in making this possible — Hendricks County Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists, Hendricks county Solid Waste, Duke Energy and Avon Superintendent Dr. Maggie Hoernemann.

The community is invited to check out the OLC when they have public events. You can find those opportunities on their Facebook page facebook.com/Avon-Outdoor-Learning-Center.

About Heather Chastain

Heather Chastain is an Emmy award-winning journalist and author of the children's book "Caroline Girls." Learn more at CarolineGirls.com.

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