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Connecting to the Natural World

Exterior photo of Firestone Hall at dusk

Despite challenges brought on by the pandemic and a harsh winter season, construction on the revolutionary Merryweather Outdoor Classroom, which spanned several months, was completed last summer.

Although health and safety guidelines precluded guests from regularly visiting the site, glances from Ira Road have begun to tell the story of the important role the state-of-the-art facility will play in the school’s future. The space is both architecturally stunning and designed to serve the needs of students and faculty to learn about and explore the natural world.

Old Trail’s pedagogy has long been rooted in experiential learning and, given its special location in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the school’s increased emphasis on nature-based education and the many student-focused benefits associated with it—including the development of 21st century skills like problem-solving, creativity and communication, and improved physical and mental health—creates a natural match.

This project would not have been possible without the generous support of Tom Merryweather and countless other donors. Tom, and these donors, supported the school’s vision for offering unique and transformative programs that emphasize the school’s place in the Valley in ways that prepare students to learn at school and for life.

With our students spending significant time outside during the fall and early winter of 2020, the Merryweather Outdoor Classroom has already become a regular hub for teaching, collaboration, inspiration, mindfulness and even sled riding!

Even so, faculty from all divisions have just begun to scratch the surface of the many possibilities the space will be able to provide once the pandemic has safely passed. To spur this thinking and lead the integration of the outdoor classroom and the natural environment of our campus into next year’s curriculum and student experience, ECP teacher Erin McNamara has stepped into a new role as Old Trail’s director of nature-based education.

Erin will have a visible presence next year working with students of all levels in a myriad of ways. Her classes will be taught in the outdoor classroom, which will be used as a springboard for exploration of other outdoor spaces on campus, such as the Learning Farm, the forts and tunnels area, and our own hiking trails and streams. Through collaboration with faculty and outside collaborators, Erin will help us develop unique and compelling programs for students of all divisions, who will have regularly scheduled time at the facility. As Sarah Johnston said during the groundbreaking, “Today is a significant day in the future of our school. It is a day that symbolizes the forward momentum and the enhanced connection to our place in the Valley and all it has to offer.”

Plans have also been discussed to use the facility for special events, including Feast from the Field, a movie night for families, musical performances, school community gatherings and celebrations, retreats, and possibly even graduation ceremonies. But at its core, the 2,000-square foot structure and surrounding space represents a significant addition to the outdoor education programming at Old Trail, an exciting reframing of the student experience, and a dynamic connection to the school’s place in the national park. 

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Old Trail Magazine Cover - Winter 2022

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