History of St. John the Baptist (Gildehaus) Outdoor Classroom:
In 1994, the idea of an Outdoor Classroom was started by Matthew Rees, an eighth grade student at St. John’s School, who wanted to earn his Eagle Scout Badge. He came up with the idea of reclaiming the school’s old abandoned dumpsite and turning it into an Outdoor Nature Classroom. The wooded site is located next to the playground and is approximately one acre in size and consists of gently sloping terrain, mature trees, and a wet weather pond that is fed by two creeks that wind through the property.
In cooperation with The Department of Conservation, Orscheln’s Farm Supply, Washington/John Hall Lumber, Tobben Construction and Northside Landfill, Matthew began construction. First, he cleared the upper area nearest the playground, and built an amphitheater consisting of six benches and a teacher podium. Then nature trails were intertwined among the trees through the right half of the site. Just past the amphitheater he installed a set of steps that provided a shortcut down to the wet weather pond, built a wooden footbridge over one of the creeks, and then finished with a second set of steps that led to the back section of the nature area. Unfortunately, the Outdoor Classroom lacked the necessary plans for upkeep and long and short range goals for use of the area. When Matthew moved onto high school, the Outdoor Classroom became less and less utilized and was no longer maintained so the school had no choice but to shut it down.
Thankfully, that was not meant to be the end of the Outdoor Classroom. In March of 2003, St. John’s school received information regarding a Show-Me Conservation Outdoor Classroom Development Grant. The school community thought this would be a great way to revitalize the outdoor classroom for the teachers and students, so a grant writing committee was formed and the grant request was submitted. In May of that same year, the school received approval of their grant for $2,500. With these funds, the emphasis was to re-clear, replace, and enhance what had already been started by Matthew. Heavy equipment was brought in and work quickly began to remove additional debris from the left side of the site, dig out the pond area, clear the existing paths, and add-on to the path so that it would encircle the entire one acre wooded site. Tables were added to the benches to provide an actual classroom setting for the teachers and students.
The original footbridge was replaced along with the addition of two new footbridges over the creeks for easier access around the entire nature area. An observation deck was built alongside the pond so students could get an “up close” view of the pond and its many inhabitants. A post and rope system was also installed throughout the entire walking path and mulch was placed on the paths to keep them neat and weed free.
All of this work was completed over the summer of 2003 thanks to the hard work and dedication of the St. John’s Knights of Columbus, St. John’s Men’s Sodality, St. John’s Ladies Sodality, Pacific Lumber, Bobcat of St. Louis, A.S.P Enterprises, Lowes, Dickey Bub, Reinhold Electric, Shade Tree, Shaw’s Nature Reserve, Straatmann Feed and countless wonderful parents, students, and parishioners who worked tirelessly to see that all work was completed in time for the beginning of the new school year.
The “new” Outdoor Classroom was formally dedicated on Sunday, October 19, 2003. A Grand Opening was held and the entire community was invited. The day began with a blessing and walk through the area, led by Father Jeff Knight. Presentations from Bill and Joy Miles of Earth’s Classroom, and Dianne Moran, Folklorist/Naturalist ran throughout the day.
Several informational booths were also set up by The Missouri Conservation Department and the Missouri Trappers Association. Parents manned craft and food stations for the kids and guests enjoyed walking the nature area and taking pictures of this beautiful fall day.
The Outdoor Classroom now had a substantial list of volunteers devoted to maintaining the classroom, along with the teachers’ lesson plans in all subject areas including math, science, history, reading, writing and the arts. It was well on its way to being a top-notch, unique learning center for the entire school community. The one thing the Outdoor Classroom lacked, due to the damage from the heavy machinery, was sufficient plant life and wildlife habitats.
Luck would continue to be on our side, when in September 2005, the school received information concerning another grant opportunity for Outdoor Classrooms. Ideas immediately went toward beautifying the landscape with native plants, wildflowers, and trees along with adding wildlife habitats. The grant writers promptly went back to work and submitted another request. In April 2006, the school received notice that they had been awarded the full $1,000 to make these necessary and beneficial improvements.
Work quickly got underway over the summer, with the help of Missouri Wildflower Nursery, Shaw’s Nature Reserve, Gilberg’s Nursery, Hillermann’s Nursery, Straatmann Feed, and the Missouri Department of Conservation, along with many parent and student volunteers. Various wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees were planted throughout the nature area. In addition, an after school Nature Club was established for the 3rd and 4th graders who helped with various projects such as planting flowers, labeling trees and plants, making bird feeders, painting and hanging bird houses, placing rocks around the pond, and building brush piles for wildlife. The excitement of now having a fully-functional Outdoor Classroom on-site led to many creative uses. In Fall of 2006, the Nature Area hosted a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Day presented by the teachers and staff of St. John‘s. The school community enjoyed dressing in vintage clothing and participating in demonstrations of period tools and equipment used in those days.
The enthusiasm even flowed over to the school parents. They, too, wanted in on the fun and decided to decorate the Nature Area for Halloween for the students to walk thru as part of their classroom parties. The area was filled with skeletons, ghosts, pumpkins, spider webs, etc. The bridges were covered in black material and the children had to crawl through to get out the other side, where our “not so bad” Big Bad Wolf would be waiting to surprise them with a friendly “high 5”.
In 2007, in conjunction with the school’s yearly Trunk or Treat event, these same parents started brainstorming on how they could make the event even more fun by “lighting up” the Nature Area so the kids could walk through the “Haunted Forest” at night. Parent volunteers are never in short supply for putting on this event. Even a tractor for hayrides is donated each year to transport children from the Trunk or Treat Event on the school parking lot over to the Haunted Forest all evening long.
Fast forward to today and you will find that the labor of love is highly reflected in this hidden gem at St. John’s (Gildehaus) Church and School. The area is enjoyed by teachers, students, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, after school care, summer school, and even individuals who just want a quiet sanctuary for peaceful, reflective prayer.
We hope that our “labor of love” has sparked your interest in our wonderful woodlands. We invite you to visit our peaceful and serene place in the woods often, so you, too, can enjoy the beauty of what God has blessed us with, with every changing season.