For their final project of the 2020-2021 school year, Duke School sixth graders gave the school community even more reason to go outside. Over several weeks, they transformed parts of the campus into themed trails guiding visitors through natural scenery, fantasy adventures, inspiring art, and engaging exercises.
The spring trails project was new to the sixth-grade curriculum, but it built on themes of environmental awareness and project design that have been staples in years past.
“I think our main goal was to get the kids outside,” said sixth-grade teacher Becca Wooldridge. In addition to limiting indoor class time during the pandemic, the teachers wanted to help students “reinforce the design process, to learn to work in groups cooperatively and help the environment through design.”
The trails project kicked off during spring break, when teachers asked students to explore trails around their homes or vacation destinations. “We wanted them to go out and see as many different kinds of trails as possible so that when they came back, they could brainstorm different trails that they might be interested in designing,” said Becca.
Back at school, the students discussed and settled on several trail types to design: a nature trail, a sound and meditation trail, fitness and sensory trails, two trails of miniatures depicting fairies and gnomes as well as scenes from The Hobbit, an art trail, and chalk trails with mazes and other sidewalk activities.
Becca and fellow teachers Ben Felton, Michelle Reich and Dillon Ross advised the student teams, as did art teacher Lucia Marcus and middle school counselor Rachel Wertheimer. Media specialists, additional staff members and outside experts also lent their time and knowledge.
The students formed teams according to the trails that interested them most. Each team considered the tools that they would need, who they could ask for expert advice, and who their trail’s primary users would be. Maps in hand, they toured the campus to find promising trail sites.
Before beginning their designs, the teams consulted prospective stakeholders to learn how they might use each type of trail. For the fairies and gnomes miniatures trail, students asked for input from the kindergarten, first-, and second-grade classes that would use it. Other trail teams surveyed their peers, school administrators, and other grade levels to glean ideas and priorities. This feedback helped determine each trail’s location, length, and features.
During the final, two-week design phase of the project, the teams created maps or models of their trails as prototypes. Many teams then built their trails along sidewalks and wooded areas surrounding the campus. Others presented their prototypes as potential future campus projects. Sixth graders involved in distance learning created trails in their own neighborhoods and communities.
Students drew on a variety of skills, talents, and new experiences to create their trails. The miniatures teams modeled fantasy scenes and creatures from clay, popsicle sticks and other found materials. For the sound and meditation trail, students assembled a playlist of music and nature sounds to complement visits to the proposed space. Students designing fitness trails considered exercises that could be mapped in chalk as well as those requiring specialized equipment. The art trail team built installations inspired by nature artist Andy Goldsworthy into a wooded landscape.
For the nature trail, which is designed to be a permanent feature at the edge of the Duke School campus, students cleared paths, removed invasive plants, and posted interpretive signs highlighting the native vegetation and creatures that visitors might encounter along the trail.
“It’s always nice to have one project a year where you just try something new and see how it goes,” Becca said. Launching the trail project at the end of a pandemic-transformed school year seemed especially appropriate.
“We knew they’d be excited about it. We knew they’d come up with creative ideas,” she said. “I guess the one surprise is that, at the end of a long, grueling year, their energy was still super high. They were very excited, and they worked really hard.”
Photo courtesy of the Sixth Grade Team Teachers