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Outdoor Classrooms 101: Part Two

Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 5:45 PM EST
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HOPE, Maine (WABI) - This school year has been challenging for students and teachers for a number of reasons.

When the pandemic hit, many teachers started getting their kids outside more often. We’ve been learning about this new outdoor classroom movement that has spread across the state and country.

Since the beginning of the school year, teachers have been finding creative ways to learn.

Some have taken their curriculum outdoors as studies show that coronavirus transmission rates drop outside.

“Their interest in being out here and their comfort level that they’ve built up around learning outside really captures them,” said Sarah Schrader, 1st grade teacher at Hope Elementary School.

Schrader is no stranger to teaching in nature.

The former Juniper Hill School teacher, now spends her days with 1st and 2nd graders at Hope Elementary School.

She, like some other teachers in Maine, had a leg up when the pandemic hit, because they were already bringing their students outside for lessons.

Schrader says the physical, emotional, and cognitive benefits in students speaks volumes.

“The space out here and the amount of movement and motion that they experience out here helps them regulate when they are sitting at a table,” Shrader said. “It helps their body feel like their needs are met so that they can kind of sit and focus.”

Schrader is not the only educator passionate about outdoor programs.

Marie Robinson is the Superintendent of RSU 89, which serves Katahdin Schools in Staceyville.

Before arriving in Maine four years ago, the students there did not have a lot of opportunities to be outside. Robinson wanted to change that.

Music & Movement with Mrs. Miller~

Music and movement with Mrs. Miller and grade 1 students~ #katahdinstrong #outdoorlearning #weareinthistogether

Posted by Katahdin Schools on Friday, January 8, 2021

“I’ve never mandated anything. It was always just - this is an opportunity and if this is something you feel can support you and your kids, by all means take them outside,” said Robinson.

Some teachers in her district, like their music teacher for example, have not been able to teach indoors.

Robinson says she and others are blazing the trail and learning how to incorporate movement into lessons, while making sure they’re prepared and warm.

In the past, Robinson says too much focus has been put on academics, without looking at the whole child.

“Now we’re taking a step back and saying, there’s more to a child’s healthy development than staying inside in a classroom all day long,” Robinson explained.

Both Robinson and Schrader got some guidance and financial help through mini grants from the Maine Environmental Education Association.

The association has been working hard to advance outdoor learning across the state.

“We had ⅙ of every Maine public school apply for that funding, which really shows that this is happening all over the state of Maine. Teachers really want to do this and they need the support to do it,” said Olivia Griset, Executive Director of the Maine Environmental Education Association.

“Our time outside in the winter has already been limited, but it would be much more limited without having the gear that we were able to get through that grant,” said Schrader.

Robinson says the use of substitutes in her district is down this year. She credits that to the fact that her staff is happy to come to work.

“With this day in age and the challenges that we’re all facing - if we can have a school where people are happy to come, I think we’re doing the right thing,” Robinson said.

“If my day did not incorporate the outdoors or nature, I would have a much harder time feeling fulfilled in my work,” said Schrader.

Both Schader and Robinson say that they hope more schools adopt outdoor learning models.

The keys, they say, are having good intentions and sticking with it.

As far as the Maine Environmental Education Association goes, they’re spring round of mini-grants for outdoor learning is now open.

Applications are due March 15th.

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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