Katahdin Schools experiment with outdoor learning

STACYVILLE, Maine — New methods of learning, spurred on by the goal of social distancing and keeping everyone safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic, have taken Katahdin Elementary School students outside to experience a different kind of learning. 

While the school has incorporated aspects of outdoor learning since 2016, the global pandemic has rapidly accelerated the process, according to Marie Robinson, the superintendent of RSU 89, as well as the principal of the elementary school. 

“It’s definitely been a journey, but this year things have really just propelled much faster than I would have guessed,” Robinson said. “Besides pre-K, all of these outdoor classrooms have been developed basically through the work of volunteers and staff.”

Students of Katahdin Elementary School toss leaves in the air as part of outdoor learning activites the school has adopted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Marie Robinson)

Part of the students outdoor learning activities include setting up a game camera in a pond located on the school’s property to observe beavers in the wild, and then reading non-fiction materials about beaver life and behavior. 

Another activity involved students going into nearby woods and “adopting” a tree that they liked, then researching the tree and learning about tree identification using their chosen tree. 

The school presently has designed outdoor learning spaces for Pre-K through third grade, and a fourth grade learning space is being developed. Wooden pavilions with metal roofs have been set up outside so that students may learn outside even in the event of inclement weather such as rain. 

The school is also looking to purchase rain gear for students, and most already have snow gear prepared for the winter months. 

“We’re trying not to recreate the classroom in an outdoor setting,” Robinson said. “The idea is for kids to move and to be more actively involved in their learning.”

A child draws outside as part of Katahdin Elementary’s outdoor learning activities. (Photo courtesy of Marie Robinson)

Support for the school’s outdoor learning came from the Juniper Hill School, a nature-based childhood program in Alna, and the Katahdin Learning Project, a division of the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters. The school also received a $1,500 grant from the Maine Environmental Education Association to assist with setting up the outdoor learning facilities. 

Katahdin Elementary is not the only school in Maine that has experimented with outdoor education as a result of the pandemic. At East Grand School in Danforth, outdoor activities have also become a staple of young children’s education, with outdoor fireplaces and gazebos as part of their setup. 

“It’s a great alternative, and my hope is it doesn’t end with the virus,” Robinson said of the school’s outdoor learning. “I think this is something that every kid deserves to have in their regular education. 

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