PORTLAND, Maine—Teachers and students in Maine’s largest district have returned to classes this week. Brooke Teller, a science, technology, engineering and math coach here, would normally be spending this time administering new science curricula and coordinating professional development meetings. Instead, her schedule is mostly filled with the delivery of hundreds of tree stumps and sturdy plastic buckets for outdoor classroom space.
Like many other districts in Maine, Portland Public Schools has responded to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis by pivoting to a hybrid model: Children in kindergarten through ninth grade will be attending smaller classes twice a week (older high school students are still learning remotely). To allow for social distancing, the district has also created outdoor classrooms at each of its 16 schools. Working with local architects, the district identified suitable outdoor areas and installed tents or other shade structures to accommodate changing weather. Each student will be given a drawstring backpack and clipboard, and the stumps and buckets will serve as desks.
“We know virus transmission rates drop dramatically outside, and that it’s safer for both kids and adults,” Teller says. “And so right now our most important task is figuring out how to get 5,000 students outdoors as much as possible.”
Earlier this summer, Teller assumed the new role of outdoor learning coordinator for the district. She says it’s been a hectic season familiarizing herself with fire codes, staking and ballast. She estimates she’s purchased about 600 buckets for the schools (often in their individual school colors). She’s partnered with the city arborist to locate dozens of downed or dead trees in parks and cemeteries that can be cut into stumps and benches. And she’s produced training videos and webinars to help teachers and students make the transition.
“We recognize that our teachers and students are on a very wide continuum of comfort around being outside. We want to recognize that and help them move through it,” Teller says. “Because one thing we also know is that outdoor learning is better for everyone.”
If there is a silver lining to the ongoing pandemic, it is that more schools are looking for ways to get their students outside. For decades, environmental scholars have exposed the benefits of learning outside. The concept became more mainstream with the 2005 publication of Richard Louv’s “The Last Child in the Woods,” which popularized the concept of “nature deficit disorder” and also demonstrated the cognitive, emotional and physical benefits afforded by spending time outside. The book’s critical and commercial success spurred the “No Child Left Inside” movement, which also led to the creation of a nationwide environmental educational coalition and both state and federal legislation. But for most American schoolchildren, it did little to change their relationship with the outdoors. An independent study commissioned by the Nature Conservancy in 2011 found that only about 10% of adolescents spend daily time in green spaces and fewer than 5% have gone on an outdoor field trip with their schools.
Sarah Bodor is director of policy and affiliate relations for the North American Association for Environmental Education. She says that, if anything, those statistics may have dropped in the nine years since the survey was completed. But the COVID-19 pandemic has had the unexpected benefit of getting more people outside. And that’s a very good thing.
“There are so many academic and emotional benefits to outdoor time,” Bodor says. “Research proves that even a short amount of time outdoors can help students with concentration and focus and offers healing, calming benefits as well. Evidence also shows that many students who struggle with traditional classroom learning really thrive academically and socially in outdoor settings, especially when they include an experiential component.”
For more than a decade, Maine has had a robust community of both private and public outdoor educational organizations. Hazel Stark and Joe Horn are co-founders and CEOs of the Maine Outdoor School, a for-profit organization dedicated to providing place-based experiential learning in the state’s rural communities. Stark says that, prior to the pandemic, she and Horn worked regularly with several schools in Washington County, Maine. In the past few months, interest in outdoor programming has grown multi-fold.
“Schools that have received money from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act have been calling looking for help on how to set up a good outdoor classroom space,” Stark says. “Educators around the state are realizing more than ever how vital outdoor education experiences are in facilitating learning. Even something as simple as completing a math worksheet or reading time outside can enhance learning and a student’s sense of well-being.”
At Katahdin Schools in Penobscot County, Maine, Superintendent Marie Robinson has spent the past five years working with teachers to expand outdoor education in her district, including environmental education classes for middle school students and “forest Fridays” for kindergartners.
“But this year, safety concerns surrounding the pandemic have really propelled us to expand these opportunities,” she says.
When we spoke Sept. 4, classes had just begun in her district. Robinson was returning from a third grade math class, where students were collecting small rocks to help with their arithmetic problems. Nearby, first graders were making leaf etchings as part of a language arts project.
“It’s entirely possible to meet educational standards with outdoor experiences,” Robinson says. “But that means communities must also make sure we are supporting our teachers and educators in the process.”
Robinson’s district is located in a part of the state that has struggled economically. About 60% of the students there are on the national free and reduced lunch program. It’s also a region with some of the most extreme weather, with snowfalls often beginning in October.
She’s confident they’ll be able to continue learning outside, even as colder temperatures arrive. Parent groups, she says, have already formed clothing donation drives to ensure that all students have the appropriate winter gear. And she’s working with community partners to design a pavilion with canvas sides that can withstand the snow.
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Districts in southern Maine have additional challenges. Some are entirely urban and have little or no green space. At Horace Mitchell Primary School in Kittery, located just north of the New Hampshire border, administrators erected a large white tent in the parking lot. On Thursday, September 10, small groups of four students sat in distanced circles. Educators walked from group to group wearing face shields and dispensing hand sanitizer. Teachers there say they’d prefer a field or a park, but they’re still enjoying the lingering summer weather. Birds, butterflies and the occasional squirrel make appearances, which sparks student curiosity and can sometimes lead to welcome comic relief.
Back in Portland, Brooke Teller has worked with teachers at the East End Community School to create multiple outdoor classrooms. A large wooden replica of a schooner has been outfitted with a donated sailboat sail that will provide shade. The school garden will be a regular stop for some classes as well.
Rori Crossman teaches fifth grade there. Already, she says, the garden has been a place to build connections among students, who come from diverse backgrounds. Many are immigrants from places as far flung as Iraq and Somalia (about 70% of the students are first-time English language learners). They’ve committed to growing foods indigenous to the students’ birth places as well as native New England vegetables.
“Outdoor education can create a real sense of learning and balance,” Crossman says. “The students discover that they can all be curious about the world around them together. Kids want to be involved. And that’s what sparks real learning.”
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