Cover Stories

A Natural Classroom: The Wilson School

Rows of desks, shelves of books, maps and artwork on the bulletin boards, a flag in the corner—even in our wireless age, we still tend to think of education as an indoor activity. But for more than 100 years, The Wilson School has combined classic and innovative approaches to learning. So it’s not surprising that students found something new on campus at the start of the school year: an outdoor classroom.

The space, located on the north side of campus, is part of a renovation and landscape renewal project funded by the school’s Centennial Capital Campaign. “It’s an extension of our commitment to incorporate the best of traditional and innovative teaching methods,” explains head of school Thad Falkner. “Now we can carry instruction outdoors from indoor locations, such as our high-tech innovation room and our library, the hub of the school.” Surrounded by plants and trees that attract songbirds and butterflies, the classroom lets students experience the outdoors as part of the learning process, he adds. “But it’s also fully powered by electricity and Wi-Fi, so we can use technology whenever we need it. The flexible setup prepares students for success in the workplace of tomorrow, where they won’t necessarily be tethered to a single desk in a brick-and-mortar structure.”

The classroom, which holds up to 50 students and includes a generous demonstration area and bench seating, is designed to accommodate presentations and mall, project-based groups. “It’s conveniently located near the art studio and the science lab, two subject areas that thrive on outdoor observation and discovery,” Falkner says. Signs featuring both botanical and common names will identify each plant, and the landscape will reflect the changing seasons throughout the school year. Nearby tribute benches honoring former head of school Eugene D. Ruth and the late Tom Wotka, a longtime faculty member, make it an ideal environment for reflection as well as learning.

The outdoor classroom supports the school’s mission in many ways, Falkner says. “Wilson provides an exceptional education, but we accomplish that goal by combining a rigorous curriculum and outstanding teachers with unique academic experiences and a nurturing environment,” he says. “We stress self-discipline, responsibility and respect for differing points of view, and we value individuality and creativity. We integrate technology into the classroom to enhance the curriculum and engage students in a meaningful way, but also urge young people to ask questions and think critically. It’s a cooperative, problem-solving approach to learning that encourages them to maintain curiosity and a sense of wonder toward the world around them.”

The new addition is just one of many ways in which Wilson keeps students and teachers excited about learning, Falkner notes. “Human beings tend to think better and more creatively when we’re connected to our natural environment. The classroom deepens the educational experience, inspires a lifelong passion for learning, and prepares students to succeed in an ever-changing world.”

Pictured: Senior kindergarten co-teacher Michael Hinkebein and students in the outdoor classroom
Photo: Colin Miller of Strauss Peyton

[The Wilson School, located at 400 DeMun Ave. in Clayton, invites parents to tour the campus. For more information, call 314.725.4999 or visit]


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