Breath of Fresh Air
By Bill Donahue
Suburban Life Magazine, September 2020.
On Germantown Academy’s sprawling campus, outdoor spaces enable students to grow, play, and learn essential skills needed to thrive later in life.
Germantown Academy changed Troy Holiday’s life. Recruited as a student-athlete to play basketball in ninth grade, he was immediately struck by the tranquil beauty of the 126-acre campus, particularly in the area surrounding Wissahickon Creek. After graduating in 2001, Holiday went to Loyola University, where we would pursue a degree in biology.
“GA opened my eyes, offered so many opportunities, and sparked my love of the sciences,” he recalls. “I particularly remember the creek, which was part of the curriculum for everything from science to English. We would canoe, go on creek walks, and I always remember the feeling I got from crossing the [Class of 1888] Bridge to get to the athletic fields, because sports were a big part of my life. It was a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively.”
Holiday has since returned to the campus as lower school science teacher and multisport coach. He utilizes the campus’ outdoor spaces as much as possible; it’s hard not to, considering the breadth and depth of outdoor classrooms, courtyards, gardens, playgrounds, and other common spaces.
“Our outdoor spaces help students understand that there is a very intimate connection between us and nature, and it opens up all types of questions and curiosities,” he adds. “Being outside is invigorating and stimulating, and the kids take inspiration from the environment. It helps them become better citizens and learn foundational approaches to life.”
Based in Fort Washington, Germantown Academy aims to provide a transformational, co-educational experience for students from pre-K through 12th grade. In many ways, GA looks and feels like a college campus, with soaring architecture, technology-rich classrooms, and specialized indoor spaces such as the Roberts Library and Technology Center, the Beard Center for Innovation, and the Arts Center to spur students’ creativity.
While the campus’ indoor spaces remain central to a student’s education, the outside world has become an increasingly vital part of the experience—especially this year, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school has taken painstaking precautions to keep students and faculty safe, both indoors and out, according to Laura Martin, Germantown Academy’s director of admission, enrollment, and financial aid.
“Our outdoor spaces are at the core of our curriculum in the best of times so that children can grow and play and learn how physical activity supports our health and wellness,” she says. “Outside is a healthy place to be right now, and we have the spaces that provide our students with socialization, connection, and some semblance of a typical, pre-2020 school day. We’re able to naturally move classes to the outdoors, so it’s like another day at GA.”
As a longtime employee, as well as an alumna who graduated in 1982, Martin has had a front-row seat as the school expanded and cultivated its outdoor spaces. Her office window overlooks Connor Quad, so she has a bird’s-eye view of the goings-on. Recently, for example, she watched a sixth-grade class flying paper airplanes for a lesson in science methodology. GA students can’t help but feel immersed in nature, whether they’re having lunch on the quad, “playing in the mud and building with sticks” at the Nature Nook, or simply spending time together during a free period.
Outdoor spaces also help students foster essential life skills—imagination, time management, and unstructured play, as well as emotional growth and development—that will serve them well in college and as they enter the working world.
“We’re lucky to have the outdoor spaces we do, now more than ever,” Martin says. “We feel like we can afford our students as normal a school experience as possible, in part because of these outdoor spaces. It’s not as though we took them for granted before, but now we see that they are critical to what we do. It feels good to offer that to children.”
‘Out in the World’
Besides staying outside as much as possible, Germantown Academy has implemented preventive measures such as face masks and social distancing in accordance with prescribed guidelines. The school has also lengthened class times, adjusted scheduling, and extended time between classes to give students their space. The school year has been “going smoothly” so far, according to David Martin, whose titles include chair of the upper school physical education and wellness department, upper school registrar, head golf coach, and assistant lacrosse coach.
“We’re learning each day about what works,” he says. “We’re going outside whenever possible, and we’ll continue to have the kids be out in the world, not sitting in front of a screen. We’ll stay out as long as we possibly can, unless the weather is awful. Even in the cold-weather months, we’ve created a curriculum that allows us to go outside and take advantage of what’s here.”
While competitive team sports are on hold at the moment, the physical-education curriculum in the upper school has evolved to focus on “lifetime sports,” as Martin calls them—namely, tennis, volleyball, badminton, archery, and golf. He and his fellow educators have also devised creative versions of certain sports, such as soccer, so students can learn the fundamental skills of the game while limiting physical interaction.
“Kids want an educational experience that goes beyond the classroom—they want to play,” he adds. “We want them to have that experience of ‘just being a kid,’ which is so essential to childhood. At the end of the day, though, our No. 1 priority is to keep everyone safe, so we have washing stations and clean the equipment after it has been used.”
Martin has been working at Germantown Academy since 1984. With the outdoors as his office, he has gotten to watch the campus undergo a “gorgeous transformation” over the past 37 years.
“Every day I get to go out and see this beautiful campus, including several acres that we gave back to nature,” he says. “The cross-country track runs through the woods, and you’ll find some wonderful spots in the woods and along the creek where you can take 15 minutes to yourself. We’re really blessed to have the campus we have.”
Troy Holiday agrees. Prior to joining Germantown Academy’s staff, he spent 13 years as an educator in the Philadelphia School District. He very much enjoyed the experience, but he’s thrilled to be “back home” at GA, where students have room to roam, explore, and discover their independence. If they’re lucky, they might even spark an interest that blossoms into a career they love.
“My mission now is to offer the same opportunities to students that I had when I was a student here,” he says. “I want these kids to be engaged, have fun, and learn, so as long as I’m meeting those three criteria, I feel like I’m doing the right job. All that happens naturally when you spend time outside. I want them to build a relationship with nature. That’s what happened to me, and it all started at GA.”
Photography by Jody Robinson