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Students Learn About the Natural World in New Outdoor Classroom on Campus

Mills College Weekly

Hidden between the trees by the clock tower and the
Children’s School, you may find wide-eyed children in a
clearing padded with wood chips along Lion Creek. Thanks to
volunteers who donated their time and labor over the summer, the
outdoor classroom is a way for students from the Children’s
School, as well as students of all ages, to interact with and learn
about the environment.

The idea stemmed from a discussion between Suzanne DiLillo,
director of the Children’s School, and Paul Richards,
director of Campus Facilities. They began brainstorming ideas to
bring children out into the creek. It was an opportunity to clean
up the creek for restoration, to create a learning environment for
children and to make a space for the entire Mills community to

Staff and family spent several Saturdays over the summer
restoring this area. The process began by digging out stumps,
cutting down blackberry bushes and tearing out roots, while leaving
only the ones directly near the creek to prevent erosion. The last
step was to put wood chips around so that the creek could be

On any given day you may find Laurie Grassi’s fourth and
fifth grade class hunched over the creek, nets in hand, lifting
rocks in search of cray fish. They study things ranging from marine
life to water quality, spending about two to three days a week
there. “We mostly observe macro-invertebrates, or
depth,” says fifth grader Rhea Jayachandran. “The other
day we measured the temperature!”

Before spending any time in the outdoor classroom the class put
together a book called the “Outdoor Classroom Book of
Norms.” It was used as a guide for the students to learn to
be responsible for themselves, their actions, and the environment.
Browsing through the laminated pages you find numerous drawings
done by the students. Some illustrate how to treat the environment,
while others show how to be prepared to go into the outdoor

On one page in particular a student drew a picture of another
student throwing a rock into the creek; over the drawing a big
circle with a line through and the word “no” pasted
across the top. On another it illustrates what types of shoes are
acceptable to wear at the outdoor classroom.

The outdoor classroom gives the students an opportunity to learn
about the environment in a way that many students don’t get
to, according to DiLillo. “They go see and observe. They
draw. It’s a place where we do a lot of imaginative writing.
We have singing time in the trees. They have observed what
it’s like when rain pours. We pay a lot of attention to
sounds. It’s just a lot of imaginative play for the
kids,” DiLillo says.

It has extended the curriculum from where people live to natural
habitats. She described times when the students find insects, and
how they always want to take them “home” to the outdoor

DiLillo says that the outdoor classroom is getting a lot of
support from students and faculty from the natural sciences
division. A senior Mills undergraduate last year developed labels
for all the trees and shrubs in the outdoor classroom with the
English name, as well as the Latin name, and where it came

Although there is support, Richards would like to see more of
it. He perceives a disconnect from older generations.

“When I go to students and faculty of Mills and tell them
I’ve been working in the creeks, a lot of them think
I’m a little nuts. So I ask them, well, what would you do
down there? All I get are blank stares. The real education of that
place is being grasped by the [elementary] kids, while getting
blank stares from college kids and teachers.”

Richards says he feels that some people have turned their backs
on creeks in urban areas. “People throw batteries in the
creeks, there are shopping carts…kids go there to be bad. We
are privileged to have 135 acres of mostly open land in this
settled area of Oakland. This is what Oakland used to look

Richards and DiLillo are now working with the Julia Morgan
Middle School for Girls to create another similar outdoor classroom
on campus. They looking at possible sites in order to collect and
compare data from Lion Creek. Richards sees it as a great
opportunity to restore some of the creeks and environment, as well
as a way to teach students in a unique and positive way.