Country Day School in Fox Chapel opens treehouse classroom

October 2, 2018
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Shady Side Academy Country Day School students have a new treehouse classroom on their Fox Chapel campus.

Nestled in the 17-acre wooded campus of Shady Side Academy Country Day School, a new treehouse serves as an enviable learning space for students.

The school off Squaw Run Road East in Fox Chapel opened the 12-by-20 enclosed classroom earlier this summer. Educators expect students to be inspired in the natural environment featuring Murphy tables that fold down from the walls, oversized windows and a glass door letting in plenty of light.

Cost was about $150,000, two-thirds of which was covered by fundraising efforts by the school and parent’s association.

The new space is dubbed “Mrs. Smith’s Lookout” in honor of retiring School Head Sharon Smith, who said she long dreamed of making an outdoor classroom a reality for the elementary school.

“I have been fortunate to be among many Country Day teachers who believe the outdoor environment is an extraordinary opportunity for children’s learning,” said Smith, who recently celebrated 19 years at the school. “We ask the children each day to take risks and think outside the box in order to develop their creative freedom and enhance their experiences. What better opportunity to learn in an environment where their thinking is not limited by four walls and a ceiling, literally boxing in their creativity?”

Teachers will bring science, art, music, reading and math lessons into the woods, Smith said, with the aim of inspiring children by observing firsthand life in the forest and interacting with wildlife, trees and leaves.

“They will be observing the changing seasons, recording animal life and participating with nature, not just viewing it in textbook images,” she said.

The Country Day treehouse classroom is the only one of its kind in Western Pennsylvania, said Jen Roupe, director of school communications.

A 30-by-30-foot observation deck surrounds the building and a suspension bridge runs from the base of the treehouse to a lookout platform on a nearby tree. The space is wheelchair accessible by an ADA-compliant ramp from the school parking lot.

The space was designed and built by Tree Top Builders of Chester County. Crews used live-edge cedar siding and reclaimed wood from an Amish barn for the flooring. The ramp was built by Shady Side Academy facilities staff and subcontractors.

Smith said the treehouse is the perfect complement to an on-the-ground outdoor classroom at Country Day School, where teachers commonly use elements from the wooded environment in their lessons.

She expects the treehouse to be in full use by all grades this school year.

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