Thinking outside the box: educators move to outdoor learning

Published: Sep. 8, 2023 at 11:20 AM EDT
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CARIBOU and PRESQUE ISLE, Maine (WAGM) - Outdoor learning is increasing in Aroostook County, with both the Caribou Community School and the Wintergreen Arts Center starting outdoor learning initiatives this fall.

The Caribou Community School has set up an outdoor classroom, which will be available to students of all grade levels. Mr. Vaughn Martin, the founder of the project, set up the classroom to maximize the space on the school grounds and to give kids an interactive learning environment. “Well this whole area was just a wasted space,” Martin explains, “just covered with crushed stone, and I wanted to develop some kind of an outdoor classroom gathering place for students where they can study.”

Martin says the project was an ‘entire school program’, and he had assistance from staff, community members, and students. “I met with all the different teachers to find out exactly what they wanted in an outdoor classroom,” Martin says. “We developed it so that whatever they’re doing in their curriculum, there’s something out here in the garden that they will be able to use as part of their curriculum.”

Students of all grade levels help construct a part of the classroom, from moving logs to labelling plants. Martin says he wanted the kids to have an active role in constructing the outdoor space so they would feel like they owned a part of it. “I really want to make sure that the students here at Caribou Community School feel that this classroom is theirs, that they have ownership of it . . . hoping that because they have ownership of it they will take really good care of it.”

The Covid-19 pandemic inspired and motivated Martin to pursue an outdoor learning environment. “The whole push was to get students outdoors where there’s fresh air,” he says. “But also studies have shown that students tend to learn – better, even, for many students – where they’re in an outdoor environment where they’re exploring, and studying things in the outdoors, where they can touch and smell and feel.”

Caribou Community School is not alone in its push for outdoor education. The Wintergreen Arts Center is starting an outdoor, nature-inspired class this month, too. The program, which is called SAPLINGS, was founded by Erin Marquis to help kids get outside. Marquis is a teacher for the Wintergreen Arts Center.

Marquis says that it’s important for families to be together outside, no matter the weather conditions. “Just being in nature is good for not just kids, it’s good for everyone.”

Marquis says her inspiration also came from the pandemic, from when her family was stuck inside. After participating in a 1000-hour outdoor challenge, she realized the value of spending time outside. “I think in this day and age there’s so much screen time, even like my older two kids are in school and they’re just sitting a lot of the day inside,” she explains, “and they get a little bit of recess but if they can get outside - when my kids are outside they’re always so much better behaved.”

The art teacher said that class will help families get into the routine of going outside, and hopes that the class will create a community of families. “I find that sometimes it’s hard to get kids out the door especially if maybe it’s raining or cold but once they’re out there they’re able to find their own niche.”

Both of these programs aim to give kids a hands-on learning experience and a way to physically connect with the world around them.