With the looming restrictions of school reopening in a pandemic this summer, Georgetown Central School created an outdoor education team and invited teachers, staff, community members and parents, to help brainstorm how Georgetown could adjust teaching practices to bring learning outdoors. A school already rich in the tradition of community, outdoor, and project-based learning, we knew that we had to make adjustments to a normal year (when students would participate in hands-on field trips such as digging for clams or studying the migration habits of crabs). In August, two teachers spent four days learning at Juniper Hill School ’s Summer Institute for Educators: Teaching with Nature. Juniper Hill School, a community school for PK-5th grade students, was founded 10 years ago on the foundation of outdoor, nature-based teaching and learning. Anne Stires, the School’s founder, offers year long coaching, professional development workshops, and summer institutes for educators.
Georgetown School began to pivot. With a lot of help from community members, parents and staff, and the guidance and vision of the teachers who attended the summer training at Juniper Hill, we were able to set up roughly twelve outdoor classroom spaces on school property and conservation land beyond the property. A musical garden was formed across from our school’s garden. Swinging reading nooks were created for younger classrooms, and rocks and roots were pulled from land to create a pathway to multiple classroom spaces.
Using CARES money and writing our title four federal funds application for outdoor education, we were able to supply classrooms with the instructional supplies and tools they needed. We purchased individual swings for students in kindergarten and grades one and two – a quiet space for students to take a break from the mandates of a pandemic education – and an opportunity to escape into the world of literature. We set up outdoor seating areas, using stumps and camp chairs, and purchased chalkboards to bring teaching outside.
As we asked ourselves the question, “How do we do this?” we knew it would be best to reach out to the experts. Anne Stires, from Juniper Hill School, brought outdoor learning professional development workshops to Georgetown Central School such as, “Stepping Outside for the First Time,” “Teaching with Nature: Curriculum,” “Teaching in Winter,” and lastly, “Safety and Risk Management.” From there, teachers have been bringing in more ideas around using the elements of nature to support learning. We have purchased a library collection of professional learning resources directly connected to outdoor education, and built classroom libraries with books that focus primarily on learning in nature and with nature.
In one class, morning meeting takes place outside; calendar and the days of the week are sung as children sit on donated tree stump seats arranged underneath a canopy of trees. An old playground slide is positioned neatly on the hillside leading to the classroom, a welcome experience for students as they make their way to a chalkboard and mud kitchen supplied with pots and pans. Imagination for students in these spaces runs wild and play-based learning has become more evident for the early childhood students. Instead of worksheets with math equations, students jump from sliced tree stump to tree stump adorned with numbers in order.
An experimental year, teachers have been learning first hand how to balance indoor and outdoor learning, especially as we approach the winter months. Simple things have allowed us to take students outside even on colder days. Each student in Georgetown has a warm pair of wool socks, a thermos to bring hot water or tea outside, a winter hat and a fleece neck gaiter (all items gathered by the community or purchased with CRF funds). Outdoor learning in the winter is all about movement. Students study tracks in the snow or other signs of animals that have quietly come and gone without notice on a walk through the playground fields or surrounding woods. An outdoor math class (counting by ones or tens), has students jumping in the snow–making tracks as they jump as far as they can to represent tens and as short as they can to represent ones.
Teachers bring out materials on their individual classroom carts or, in colder months, they will use the jet sleds purchased with CARES money to travel to outdoor classrooms. Outdoor education supplies are kept organized in a shed that is designated specifically for the outdoor classrooms. A walk further into the woods on conservation land, leads students and teachers to a beautiful open pavilion structure we are hoping to enclose, that acts as a shelter in the woods for learning. The timber frame structure was a collaborative effort between the school and school families.
Georgetown School will be continuing ongoing coaching with Anne Stires for the remainder of the year, beginning with our PK-2nd grade teachers. With model lessons, project-based integrated curriculum planning, and feedback sessions, teachers will gain even more confidence and creativity in working with their students outdoors. The ongoing pivot is exciting and rewarding and students and teachers are healthier and happier as a result!
This story as provided by Juniper Hill School and Georgetown Central School as part of the Maine Schools Sharing Success Campaign. To submit a story or an idea, please email it to Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org.