Parents of Columbia Public Schools students can expect their children to spend more time learning and interacting outside.

Mike Szydlowski, K-12 science coordinator for the district, recently tweeted a list of projects that have either been done or will be worked on soon. It lists plans of building new “nature play areas,” outdoor classrooms and even getting chickens for more of the schools.

So far, the Benton STEM Elementary School nature play area, Two Mile Prairie Elementary School garden and West Boulevard Elementary School outdoor classrooms are among the projects that have been completed.

Initial plans were made last year but had to be halted because of the winter and then postponed again because of the pandemic.

“I don’t wish for the pandemic, but the pandemic has allowed us to have the extra money to build these nature playgrounds,” Szydlowski said.

The school district was able to afford these with help from the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri and by digging into existing budgets that would have been used for field trips.

Szydlowski said Fairview and Derby Ridge elementary schools were the only ones on the list at first, but more schools were added as people realized the importance of getting kids outside and giving them extra space to play.

The schools on the list already have metal playgrounds, but these new ones are designed to be more rustic and nature-based. Children have the option to choose whichever playground they prefer.

Szydlowski referred to studies from the University of Colorado on place-based and nature learning and the Place-based Education Evaluation Collaborative that show the significance of giving students different learning environments.

“The research says that kids do not get outside enough and because they stay inside everything from attention-deficit is worse to even allergies are worse now, than when we were all kids,” Szydlowski said. “When they’re given a chance to learn and be outside, their behavior is better, their attendance is better and their grades end up being better.”

With the help of students and teachers from the community, finding volunteers to build these areas hasn’t been an issue, either.

“One of the things is the teachers at the schools want it so badly,” he said. The teachers are notified about the days the play areas will be built, and they come out to help with other volunteers.

Volunteers who have helped with the completed projects can already see their work affecting the community. Szydlowski lives close to Fairview Elementary and often passes by kids using the nature play area.

“It’s hardly ever empty,” he said. “Not that they don’t ever play on the other playgrounds, but they’re playing more on the nature playground than the other playground, which is neat to see.”

  • Education reporter, fall 2020 Studying arts and culture journalism Reach me at, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Elizabeth Brixey is the Columbia Missourian's education editor and an associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism. She can be reached at (573) 882-2632 and

Recommended for you