Anti-obesity group to construct ‘outdoor classroom’ downtown

KENNY KEMP | Gazette
KEYS 4 Healthy Kids’ latest project is an outdoor classroom in the middle of downtown Charleston

Laura Dice, like many of her friends and coworkers, recalls that most of her favorite childhood memories took place outside — something she fears may be lost to many children today.

“We were doing a workshop, and the lady conducting it asked us to close our eyes and recall our fondest childhood memories,” she said. “Every one of them had to do with being outside and being in nature. If you ask kids today what their favorite memory is 20 years from now, are they going to be about video games?”

Dice, the project coordinator for KEYS 4 Healthy Kids, said a lack of outdoor experiential learning opportunities is what inspired the non-profit’s latest project — an outdoor classroom in the middle of downtown Charleston.

The King Center Outdoor Classroom will be located at 314 Donnally St. near the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center. The planned site will include raised beds for gardening, outdoor musical instruments, a wheeled-toy area and climbing and crawling areas. It will be open to the public, and is slated for completion in the summer of 2015.

“I think it gives kids a way to be creative. If you look at a traditional playground, you can go down the slide or climb the monkey bars, but it doesn’t really encourage creative play,” Dice said. “If you look at our design, it encourages kids to learn different things — there’s an art area, a building area, all sorts of things.”

KEYS has partnered with the city of Charleston, Charleston Parks and Recreation, the Charleston Area Alliance and city council on the project. KEYS has contributed $6,500 to the outdoor classroom, and Charleston Parks and Rec will contribute in-kind labor and $3,000 in materials. KEYS applied for a grant of nearly $5,000 through the Capitol Conservation District for fencing for the area, but the CCD cannot fund permanent projects in the city. Dice said she has been encouraged to re-apply for a grant for non-permanent project necessities, including mulch, plants and engineered wood fiber.

KEYS enlisted Nature Explore, a collaborative program of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, and local landscape architectural firm Three Trees Design and Landscaping to design the project.

Dice said she hopes the project will serve as a catalyst for more green space in Charleston, and if successful, could inspire other communities to create their own outdoor classrooms.

“There’s a lack of physical activity opportunities in the area, and specifically physical activity opportunities that have to do with nature,” she said. “Kids today don’t have access to the natural world anymore. They’re getting more and more disconnected from the world around them.”

KEYS will also hold a Kidz Bite Back Summit on Friday morning at 8:15 a.m. at Ruffner Elementary School and at 9 a.m. at Anne Bailey Elementary in St. Albans. The initiative, which trains “Kidz Advocates” to teach their peers about the dangers of overconsumption and sedentary lifestyles, is sponsored by Coventry Cares.

KEYS 4 Healthy Kids is a non-profit organization geared toward reducing and preventing childhood obesity in West Virginia by encouraging active lifestyles and healthy eating. For more information, visit www.keys4healthykids.com.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.

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