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Notes from the field

Pentucket High School Environmental Club Builds Sanctuary Learning Space

Maggie Dorato

Students at Pentucket Regional Middle High School are in the process of creating a sanctuary garden space for student learning featuring a native plant habitat. A sanctuary garden space is a designed place that provides food and habitat for animals and pollinators in a specific area with native plants and organic techniques. Sanctuary spaces range from gardens and landscapes to corridors and networks.


Students in the Environmental Club have been working all year to promote climate resiliency and the protection of native species in the Pentucket School District. This past summer, the students started the outdoor learning space project for high school classes. 


For the first task, the students gathered to plan and look at the outdoor classroom space in the back of the new PRMHS building. Members of the Environmental Club then met to sketch and propose several layouts for the outdoor learning space. Three classroom layouts were drafted. The first included a plan where students would have individual seats made from logs and have a border of native species surrounding the classroom (Layout A). The second had two rows of benches facing a chalkboard, again with a border of native species (Layout B).

The third and final outdoor classroom layout was the one built. It included several convertible tables with a chalkboard, and native species spread throughout the entire space (Layout C). After finalizing the layout, the Environmental Club was ready to set the plan into action. This layout was chosen for its flexibility and capability to incorporate indigenous species into the learning environment.

For the rest of the summer (and fall semester), Environmental Club members and summer interns at PRMHS met to build the outdoor learning space. First, students had to clear the area of any debris or litter, as well as branches and rocks. Once the area was cleared, students began planting various native plants among the outdoor classroom area, making a native species garden.

In developing the sanctuary garden, the Environmental Club students hoped to promote the protection of native plants and their pollinators. Native species are indigenous to a certain area or region ecosystem, where the region has naturally evolved. Native species help with air pollution and conserving water, as well as creating habitat and food for local animals. It’s important to protect native plants because they are critical parts of their ecosystems. Without native species, life around their ecosystem becomes scarce. Local wildlife relies on native species.


Environmental Club members planted a variety of indigenous species among the outdoor classroom. Some of these plants were left over from the previous year’s holiday tree sale, selling over three hundred native plants. Some of the shrubs and trees planted include: American Hazelnut, Grey and Yellow Oseir, Pagoda, Alternative, and Silky Dogwood, as well as Beach Plum and Ninebark. Native plants already included in the garden were Spicebush, Muscle Wood, Red Maple, Sugar Maple, and Oak trees.


In the spring, the Environmental Club will continue planting in the native species garden. There will be upland and wetland herbaceous plants. Also, there are plans to add ground cover and plant flowers.


After planting concluded, the Environmental Club began building the convertible benches/tables for use in the outdoor classroom.  This was many members’ favorite part of our project. Students had a ‘building party’ and spent several days over the summer working on building several tables.

The table design was chosen for its efficiency. These tables can sit two to three students and the back of the table can be pulled down to be used as a flat surface for learning activities. The versatility of the desks help classes to be able to function properly in the outdoor setting.


After building the tables, Environmental Club members were able to be creative and paint the tables. Students chose several different designs all reflecting environmental themes.

While painting the tables, students also worked on making a pathway from the PRMHS building to the outdoor classroom. Along this pathway, members planted more native species and descriptions of their roles in the environment, as well as a ‘staircase’ made of extra wood. The staircase marks the entrance to the outdoor classroom, with the labels for the new plants guiding the path to the space.


Now, the outdoor learning space is available for use by both middle and high school staff and students. Due to the construction nature and setup of the new PRMHS, students rarely are able to go outside compared to previous years. The Environmental Club encourages teachers to use the learning space and help get students outside during the day.

Extensive data shows that consistent exposure to nature improves learning and memory, decreases stress and anxiety, helps elevate mood, and helps with emotions. Spending twenty minutes in nature every day helps reduce stress-hormone levels. A study from an interdisciplinary Cornell team found that a brief time spent in “nature therapy” led to benefits. The team concluded that ten to fifteen minutes spent in natural spaces can improve mood, blood pressure and heart rate. Teachers that make effective use of the outdoor classroom can see a decrease in students' stress levels, as well as an increase in mood and attentivity during class. The Cornell team emphasizes the importance of green spaces, even in urban schools. In building this outdoor classroom, Environmental Club students hope to encourage teachers to use this space in their teaching and get students outside to experience these benefits.


This year, the Environmental Club is also working on several projects to promote sustainability and environmentally conscious living. Black Earth composting has been approved for the PRMHS and begins next week! Students started a water bottle collection, and the Environmental Club is working with the Art Club on creating a piece to demonstrate the incredible number of plastic waste in Pentucket alone.


The core mission of the Environmental Club is to increase awareness of the relationship between human actions and our environment and to educate the school community on steps that can be taken to improve our environment and encourage responsible environmental behaviors.


Funding for this project has been provided through a NOAA grant with the Gulf of Maine Institute. addition%20to%20 providing%20resources,or%20water


Maggie Dorato

Maggie is currently a senior at Pentucket Regional High School. She has been in the Environmental Club for three years and has worked on projects like the outdoor classroom, climate cafe's, and Black Earth composting. In the fall she will be heading off to college where she plans on majoring in criminology and criminal justice. In her free time, Maggie likes being with friends and going into Boston. 

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