ESTEVAN - Three years of research, collaboration and work are coming to fruition at Pleasantdale School.
Middle years students were out planting trees in the schoolyard and around it last week as part of a joint outdoor project done with the City of Estevan.
The project started before the pandemic when the school noticed that trees at the end of their playground, which were on city property, were almost all dead. They wanted to do something about it, and they also were interested in having some outdoor activities.
"We started working with Rod March to see what we could do," said principal Michelle Smart. "Our middle years students have had many learning experiences throughout this project, and environment and sustainable practices have always been an interest of our school."
Under the guidance of two teachers, Angela Smeltzer and Kyle Vibe, Grade 7 students that were in school back then got involved with looking at what they could potentially do to make their yard look nicer for generations to come.
"The trees at the back of our property, which were on city property, were old poplars and they were dying out, so the city was going to remove them … And I thought it would be pretty cool to get involved with the kids in planting a shelterbelt because that is what you build out in the fields and that helps protect your open spaces from the wind. We get a lot of north wind through there," Smeltzer recalled. "The kids thought it was pretty cool, so they bought into the idea quite nicely because they didn't want to get cold at recess time. And also, because they loved the idea of getting out there and digging in the dirt. That was about three years ago."
The students started researching shelterbelts and different trees that would do good in Estevan. They ended up choosing nine different varieties. Together with teachers and staff, they also kicked off the fundraising campaign to have some money to buy those trees. Students presented their project to the city, and the city helped with resources and money.
The old trees were removed a couple of years ago and the logs were used to create an outdoor classroom that is well used by students now. A couple of the sturdy old trees were left for habitat for birds, bats and other creatures. The students learned all about different trees and what was necessary to build up another habitat that will be there for years to come. They also researched plants that are indigenous to Saskatchewan and started a garden on the playground that is located near the outdoor classroom.
Then COVID-19 hit, and due to restrictions, only the teachers and the city representatives could participate in the first round of tree planting. This spring brought in changes, and the new class was able to continue the project started by their older peers.
"This spring, we had our dream come true. We still had some money and the city again helped us out and we planted 64 trees with the kids on a beautiful day. And it's starting to really look like it will one day be a shelter," Smeltzer said.
Before proceeding with tree planting, the students also had a chance to work with Pam Belcher, who is a Saskatchewan environmental educator from Saskatoon.
This year, 21 students partook in the project, and last year 33 kids were involved with it. After two rounds of planting, the school now has over 100 new trees by their property. Vibe said the kids really appreciated the opportunity to put in real work.
"They were really excited. They really enjoyed doing the work out there, which I was impressed with. It was a really hot day when we planted, and they really enjoyed it. And I think they were excited about seeing what it's going to look like 10-15 years from now when the trees are a lot bigger and they can come back to the school yard and see the changes," Vibe said.
"They had to figure out how to make holes, they had to figure out how to make sure that the roots are ready to go in and how to use a bone meal. So they learned the whole process. It wasn't just hard work, it was a process to learn," Smeltzer explained.
"One of the young boys said to me at the end of the day – he's one of our children with learning needs – and he said, 'Mrs. Smeltzer, I now know how to plant a tree. I'll put it on my resumé," Smeltzer shared. "And another boy said he loves digging holes, he just said, 'I just want to dig holes, can someone else plant?'"
The school plans to keep building on their project by creating more outdoor classroom spaces, more gardens and maybe later adding some more trees. The students are very supportive of the ideas as well.
"Our students have been fantastic and very engaged in the project," Smart said.
"I just think that it's really important for these kids that they learn and they understand the sustainability of our environment when they actually work and they put into things like [planting] trees. One of the other things we're working on next year is composting. We want to figure out how to keep that cycle going of building a better environment. And I think that's what the kids are learning. As much as they love just being outside the classroom, they're also learning about better life, understanding things that we need to help our world," Smeltzer said.