Outdoor Classrooms 101: Part One

When the pandemic hit, many teachers were forced to come up with alternative ways to learn.
When the pandemic hit, many teachers were forced to come up with alternative ways to learn.
Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 4:17 PM EST
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SULLIVAN, Maine (WABI) - It’s not uncommon for teachers around Maine to head outside with their kids during the school day for a lesson.

However, when the pandemic hit, many were forced to come up with alternative ways to learn.

We spoke with those at a couple of schools in northern and Midcoast Maine to see how teachers and students are adapting to their “new normal.”

“As one school tried us out with a field trip, then another school would try us out with a field trip and then we really started leaning in on these regular, outdoor learning experiences.”

It’s been a busy few months for Maine Outdoor School.

Since 2016, co-founder Hazel Stark and the team have been providing custom outdoor learning experiences, primarily for schools.

When the pandemic hit, educators across the country contacted them about making outdoor school part of the regular, school day.

“We were able to give advice to people near and far and then we were able to continue working in some of the schools that we were working in before because what we know is that being outdoors, we can spread out easily and we can have hands-on experiences together that still have us learn, but is a real helpful way and a healthy way to deal with the pandemic,” said Stark.

Maine Outdoor School teamed up with Frenchman Bay Conservancy - a land trust based in Hancock.

Year End Message

Join FBC Community Engagement Coordinator Kelsey Moore as we take a look back on 2020's programming & stewardship, and learn what's coming in the new year ahead.

Posted by Frenchman Bay Conservancy on Monday, December 28, 2020

Together, they were able to pilot the outdoor program at Mountain View School in Sullivan.

Programming ramped up in September.

We sat in on one 5th grade science class a few weeks ago.

Stark worked with the teacher on the lesson plan, then used a game to keep kids engaged during a session about bird species.

“With ‘Ravens and Robins,’ we were talking about Survival of the Fittest and you made it into a game,” said one student. “I thought that was really cool!”

“Ultimately I want everybody to have the chance to learn outside and connect to the ecosystem and the environment in their own backyard,” said Stark.

“It’s basically liked an extra recess, but with science in it,” said another student. “I love science!”

Kelsey Moore serves as Frenchman Bay Conservancy’s Community Engagement Coordinator.

She says kids have adapted well to being outdoors, even as seasons changed.

“It’s great to see them progressively more and more excited. They’re bundled up. They know what they need to wear and their energy level has remained the same, even as the temperatures drop,” said Moore.

While the idea of shifting classroom work may be intimidating for some, Stark says you don’t have to know a lot about the outdoors, science or setting up a classroom space.

“You can simply start by heading outside with your normal worksheet, your book, and just have students do the things they would do inside, but outdoors instead. Then start to build up from there,” Stark explained.

Everyone in the class takes part in the lesson. Students learning from home participate through Zoom.

Even at home, students are focused and engaged.

The goal for both Stark and Moore is to get more kids learning, playing, and observing the outdoors, all while they educate the next generation of environmental stewards.

“This programming is so designed to build kids up to feel confident in the outdoors that I knew this was going to be a great opportunity for them even as winter went on,” said Moore.

“If you think back to your favorite childhood memories, probably a lot of those are experiences that you had outside,” said Stark. “Those kinds of experiences are both important for childhood development, but also just for well-being and learning experiences. At the end of the day, the opportunity to be together in person has been probably the biggest, exciting result of the programs this year in particular.”

Dozens of other schools across 14 counties in Maine applied for mini-grants through the Maine Environmental Education Association.

Applications for the spring cycle of the mini-grants for outdoor learning are now open!

Apply here.

We're opening a spring round of mini-grants for outdoor learning! Public schools are eligible to apply for up to $1,500....

Posted by Maine Environmental Education Association on Monday, February 22, 2021

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