Sunflower Elementary students celebrate new outdoor classroom

Sunflower Elementary
Sunflower Elementary celebrated its new outdoor classroom with a ribbon-cutting. From left are Principal Ryan Kalis, Superintendent Mike Fulton, fourth-grade student Maya Lance, Daniel Cooper with Hollis + Miller Architects and Joan Leavens, coordinator of sustainability and community engagement for Shawnee Mission School District.

Sunflower Elementary students now have a brand-new, spacious outdoor learning space — complete with gardens, a classroom under a roof and stone tables on which they can do experiments.

Principal Ryan Kalis kicked off the celebration of the new outdoor classroom Thursday under a bright sunny sky and to the sounds of live musical drumming entertainment by Sunflower sixth-graders “which they composed for this occasion.” The Learnscape space was designed by Hollis + Miller Architects and inspired by ideas from students themselves on what they would like to see in their new classroom.

“We feel so very fortunate to be the recipient of this year’s signature learning classroom from Hollis + Miller Architects,” Kalis said. “Our students, staff and parents are all grateful for the innovative and personalized learning opportunities that will be possible in this phenomenal space.”

Daniel Cooper with Hollis + Miller Architects said Sunflower students were “fully engaged” in co-creating the learning space with the architects. Teachers provided feedback on the new space as well.

Ecology, water conservation and alternative energy

Sunflower Elementary outdoor classroom
The new outdoor classroom at Sunflower Elementary features learning opportunities for ecology, alternative energy and water management.

The outdoor classroom has three main components: ecology, water management and conservation, and alternative energy sources. Each grade level gets its own garden to grow plants, but the space also features native grasses.

Some of the paths are impervious so that stormwater can drain into a dry creek bed made from large stones, which slows the water as it trickles downhill. The classroom also houses a barrel to catch rainwater for students to water their plants in dry weather.

Energy for the space is powered by the sun — solar panels collect energy from the sunlight and charge batteries, which power outlets and even lights for the classroom.

Kalis said the architects invited Sunflower students to their headquarters so they could provide their input on the new space. One of those students, fourth-grader Maya Lance, explained how students got involved in designing the new lab space.

“Last year, I got to participate in the shred at Hollis + Miller; do you know what a shred is?” she asked her fellow classmates. “Well, it’s a brainstorming session used by architects to help with the design process.

“I was so excited that I could not sleep the night before, and now all our dreams have become a reality. I’d like to thank everyone at Hollis + Miller.”

Joan Leavens, coordinator of sustainability and community engagement for the school district, said the outdoor classroom is part of the district’s overall effort to ensure that future generations of students can enjoy great learning opportunities.

“I know from the beginning that the goal of this space is to immerse students in outdoor learning: investigating native habitats, green waters, solar energy and how the health of our ecosystem affects all of us in a very real and tangible way,” Leavens said. “This new outdoor classroom will undoubtedly inspire students to develop project-based learning challenges that will positively impact their school and community.”