Unlike many teachers, Stephen Cooper encourages his students to play in the dirt.
Mr. Cooper, the physical education teacher at Winchester Thurston North, is leading the students in building a trail.
The idea for the Northbound Trail came about when Mr. Cooper was looking for a way to take his students outside more often. The school is on a seven-acre campus in Hampton that includes a wooded section -- perfect for a trail project.
"I love to work in the woods as often as I can and thought it would be great to take my students into the woods in an educational setting," he said.
Mr. Cooper has worked with Winchester Thurston's summer school for a few years and became a full-time teacher in September 2011. Since the school had an upper field that was used for athletics, Mr. Cooper decided to create a designated trail leading to the field. Once he started thinking about the project, one idea led to another.
"He is so enthusiastic. He just kept coming to me with more and more ideas for the trail," said Jill Fetzer, director of the campus. "He would grab a napkin and start sketching plans."
Mrs. Fetzer said a downed tree from a neighboring property landed on the campus.
"Within 10 minutes, Steve is out there cutting it up to use the wood for the trail," she said.
The next idea was to create points along the trail marked with posts containing educational information about animal and plant life in the area. Then, it was decided to add Quick Response, or QR, codes with the educational information that can be scanned to retrieve it.
Mr. Cooper said the students will make videos for the information posts and a guidebook. So far, they have five of the 20 educational posts completed, he said.
According to Mr. Cooper, the trail building began with students deciding on the path for the trail.
"We'd look at the area to see if it was too steep or if it would take too much to clear it, then we would mark it with cones," he said. The students then cleared the area using rakes and other tools, allowing him to teach the children tool safety.
"We used chisels to help cut the wood," said 10-year-old, Talia Busquets, a fifth-grader from Sewickley. "It was hard at first, but eventually I got the hang of it." She said it was the first time she used tools such as the chisels and she enjoyed learning the new skills.
Her fourth-grade schoolmate, Hafsah Shahzad, 10, of Pine, said she also enjoyed learning the new skills required to create the trail.
"This taught me that everything requires hard work, but it is really fun," she said. Hafsah often hikes with her father and is happy the new trail will afford new opportunities for hiking.
Other teachers have begun incorporating activities using the trail into their curriculum. Under Mr. Cooper's direction, the third- and fourth-graders built a log cabin on the trail that combined their physical education adventure unit with the social studies and language arts curriculum.
They built the cabin during physical education classes, while in their language arts classes, they read "Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a book that depicts pioneer life. In social studies, they learned the history of pioneers.
The cabin is the first part of the Pioneer Village the school plans to create. The plans call for the village eventually to include a working blacksmith forge, a woodworkers' shed, a chopping block sawbuck, a Conestoga wagon, a wigwam, campfire ring and trading tables.
When completed, the trail will extend about three-quarters of a mile. About one-third of the trail is done now, Mr. Cooper said.
Mrs. Fetzer said the lessons the children are learning from the trail project are important.
"We want our children to go from being afraid or hesitant to spend time outdoors to being naturalists and stewards of the environment," Mrs. Fetzer said.
That is the effect the trail project already has had on 10-year-old fourth-grader Nicholas Zana of Pine.
"I usually would rather stay inside and read books or play computer games, but once we started, I really started liking to be outside a lot better," he said. "I thought it was going to be harder than it actually was and I like it."
Additional plans call for creating a low ropes course, a recycling graveyard and an outdoor classroom area. In addition to using the trail during the regular school year, Mr. Cooper plans to use it during the summer school program.
"We also hope to make it available to others such as Scouts and church groups in the future," he said.
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.