Leicester students build community, teamwork with treehouse project

LEICESTER — It’s not an exaggeration to say that education is scaling new heights at Leicester Central School. That’s where a collection of 4th- through 6th-graders — with some help from adults — recently put the finishing touches on six treehouses on school property.
The project has resulted in an amenity for future generations and required the young builders to become versed in all of the academic skills involved in construction.
The treehouse project is an example of Leicester Central’s emphasis on “project-based learning,” according to school Principal Earl Corey.
“We feel that is the way to go, in terms of having kids really connect with their learning and make it more meaningful,” Corey said. “With the help of our superintendent (Jeanne Collins), we have been able to institute project-based learning here in Leicester.”
It was far from a foreign concept for Corey. As a teacher with the Alcott School in Concord, Mass., Corey led a lot of expeditionary learning projects for his 5th-grade class.
“I have the belief that a lot of these kids get the pencil and paper tasks but need more hands-on learning to see what it’s really all about, as opposed to only theoretical models all the time,” Corey said.
So Corey enlisted two of his teachers — Laura Coro and Kara Beste — to help him organize a couple of hands-on projects for the children. Coro led younger students through an entire program related to monarch butterflies that included collecting the insects and creating an on-site garden “way-station” where they could rest and eat to give them strength on their long, migratory journey.
“We found it to be extremely successful,” Corey said of that exercise. “(The students) were engaged.”
The butterfly project incorporated the educational principles of math, science, social studies, geography and other academic skills.
“They learned so much,” Coro said.
INTO THE TREES
Why stop there, the educators reasoned. Teachers this fall decided to raise the bar — literally — on experiential learning by proposing a treehouses project. Some Leicester students last year had expressed their fondness for treehouses, and Corey felt such a plan was within the school’s grasp.
“I thought, ‘What if we make treehouses — which is certainly not part of the curriculum — but within that whole theme of treehouses we get our math, our science, our reading and writing out of that,’” Corey recalled.
Thus began a very extensive, well-thought-out project that involved students, community members, teachers, local businesspeople and parent volunteers. Together, they mapped out the materials needed to construct six individual treehouses in a wooded area behind the school building. Each structure was to be 5 feet wide and 8 feet long, with safety rails. The height of these structures was to range from four to six feet into their host trees.
But before a hammer hit a nail, school officials and students did their due diligence by presenting plans to the Leicester Zoning Board. Kids and teachers showed up at a zoning board meeting — just like any other applicant — to explain their proposal and answer questions.
“I applaud your enthusiasm, your construction and planning skills and the range of education projects you hope to include,” Leicester Zoning Administrator Mary Ann Sullivan wrote in her Sept. 19 approval letter for the children’s treehouses proposal. “Your application specifics reveal that you understand what zoning is, the meaning of setbacks and (you) demonstrate the need for safety rails and insurance to keep everyone from any danger.”
As they prepared the site for construction, teachers led the students through a series of educational exercises to help them understand various angles of the project. For example, they read the book “Operation Redwood” by S. Terrell French, which offers fun insights on trees and the environment. Each participating child wrote an essay on treehouses and the process of building them. They also wrote a variety of poems about treehouses, which they would encase in plastic sleeves and hang, quite appropriately, in a nearby “Poet-Tree.”
In addition, the students drafted designs of their treehouses, learning math and geometry skills in the process, and studied the biology of trees and the potential impact that construction might have on them. They visited the Zeno Mountain Farm in Lincoln to see firsthand examples of some really neat treehouses. They borrowed construction hard hats and tools, and located a source of pine wood to fashion into planks for their primary construction material.
“They got right into it,” Beste said of the students’ zeal in the construction process, which spanned approximately two months.
Beste noted the students helped raise money to fund the project, to supplement funds available within the school budget. Area businesspeople were very accommodating in providing supplies. They built their own toolboxes at Foxcroft Farm. Parents with experience or talent in building were recruited to help out.
Adults supervised the individual construction teams, each made up of a handful of students who worked on a specific treehouse. Adults also helped with some of the heavier assignments, such as lifting the large pine slabs into the trees. But the kids did a lot of hammering, painting, measuring and other critical jobs. They all dutifully wore hard hats and safety glasses.
None of the treehouses currently bears a roof; that element will be added later.
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
Nov. 23 was a particularly spectacular day at Leicester Central School. That’s when students officially celebrated the completion of the six new treehouses that are sure to enhance the play experience for kids for years to come.
That joy is now clearly written on the faces of the young architects of the quaint treehouse community that beckons to Leicester kids. A small contingent of students on Dec. 3 led an old journalist and slightly younger photographer on a tour of the new, elevated world they had just created.
“We all put our different touches on (the treehouses) so they don’t all look the same,” said Josie LaRock, a 6th-grader.
“I liked collaborating with one another,” said Hayden Bernhardt, also in grade 6. “There were disagreements, but it’s good to have disagreements so you can fix things.”
“I liked the opportunity to build these,” Olivia Miner, a 5th-grader, said of the treehouses. “We got to do most of the work.”
Bernhardt added the treehouses project actually helped the children get along better through the shared objective of reaching a common goal.
A rustic path leads visitors into the treehouse community. Each of the host trees bears a sign identifying its species, including poplar, cedar, maple, pine and cherry. Each of the arboreal dwellings is imbued with its creators’ artistic flourishes. One of them sports a checkerboard-painted floor; another has a series of handprints on its walls, and some benches. In some cases, the entrances are through the bottom of the structure; in other cases, a string is pulled to open a front door accessed by a ladder.
Each treehouse bears a name, such as Zeebee, Camp Little Moose and the Bear Cabin Tree House Club.
Some of the treehouses include some extra bells and whistles. A rope pulley with a bucket has been strung between two of the structures. An inviting hammock has found a home, courtesy of two trees near one of the makeshift abodes.
A sign asks visitors to treat the treehouses with respect.
Students thanked their adult helpers with a haiku and a small pine tree to plant.
“The plan is to have the treehouses there for a long time,” Beste said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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