The word “classroom” has taken on a new meaning at Holy Family Catholic Academy in Inverness. The school, which is situated on a 20-acre campus, was certified in November as having the Chicago area’s first “outdoor classroom.” In reality, the school has developed nine learning areas that students and teachers use as part of their formal academic curriculum or during free time. Those spaces — from the “gathering” area with 26 log stools to the art and music areas — were created with the input of Nature Explore, a collaboration of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. It also has a fenced playground, athletic fields, cross-country ski trails and a supply of sleds for students to use on the slopes behind the school on snowy days. Principal Kate O’Brien said the area, which was started in the fall of 2014, connects to the church’s teaching on caring for God’s creation. The school updated its curriculum to integrate the outdoor spaces into all areas. “A lot of our inquiry units are tied into being outside,” O’Brien said. Middle-school STEM classes, for example, have been asked to come up with a design for a squirrel- proof birdfeeder. When they find something that they think that will work, they can make it on the school’s 3D printer. Roberta Muran, a middle-school STEM teacher, said the faculty worked together so third-graders were studying plants while seventh- graders were studying soils; the grades worked together to decide what plants would flourish in different spots on the campus. Muran said she tries to make sure students get plenty of outdoor time. “It gives them that connection to nature,” she said. “There’s just the sheer joy of being outside.” As part of the project, the school has been restoring its retention pond into a wetland with native plants, which, in turn, have attracted more animals. Students have seen more birds, as well as frogs and a fox. Being outside means students get to move around more and use their “outside voices.” Deb Atkins, director of admissions and development, said she has noticed more creativity, collaboration and cooperation. For example, when there was a group of students in the “messy materials” area, two boys were using branches and logs to make a teeter-totter, while others wanted the same materials to build a fort. They group divided up the materials so both were able to make what they wanted. That’s part of the attraction of the outdoor spaces: students change them at will, moving things around and using materials in different ways. “Every season — every day — it’s different,” O’Brien said. One difference parents had to get used to was children coming home a little bit muddy, or maybe with a scraped knee or bump on the elbow, she said. Those things are bound to happen when there are trees that children are allowed to climb, and they are encouraged to dig in the dirt. Children who once feared spiders now bring spiders and insects to show their teachers, Atkins said. Helping plan, plant and care for the school’s gardens is incorporated into the curriculum. O’Brien said. Teachers are urged not to discipline children by keeping them inside during recess time; students who have a hard time working quietly at their desks are more likely to be helped by a chance to move around, she said. Atkins and O’Brien acknowledge that many schools do not have the space that Holy Family has, but they said any school can incorporate some of their outdoor ideas. The school raised money from donors to pay for some of the landscaping and equipment for the outdoor areas, but much of the work was done by the students themselves. Middle-schoolers helped during beginningof- school service retreats and a Boy Scout built Plexiglass garden boxes so students could watch plants’ root development. “It’s kind of a Pinterest, do-it-yourself kind of thing,” Atkins said.