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Outdoor Learning

The Resilience of Youth Engagement

Outdoor Learning Expands During Pandemic

By Paige Steele

In rural Maine, schools and their students are the heart of the community. But this spring brought explosive change to America via the coronavirus, shuttering campuses everywhere in hopes of keeping students, families, and communities safe.

For years, Friends of Acadia has helped pre-K through collegiate youth discover the gem that is Acadia National Park. Now, the COVID era leaves education leaders at the National Park Service and their partners wondering, “Where do we fit in this educational ecosystem?”

So, how can groups like FOA help parks fill these new educational voids that are challenging young people? How can FOAcurb the learning loss of students, and most importantly, buoy their social and emotional health?

Pre-pandemic, FOA’s approach was to fund field trips to Sand Beach, professional development for educators, and more.
But what happens when field trips and school as we know it are canceled? As we adapt and recover, how do we build programs resilient to future disruptions such as public health crises, government shutdowns, and natural disasters? Like all communities at present, we are figuring it out as we go and forming solutions together.
Last March, ANP education rangers quickly became experts at “pandemic program pivoting.” Once “stay safe at home” directives were in place, rangers rushed to turn their own kids’ bedrooms into home studios, complete with distinctive ranger “flat hats,” smiles, and tree cookies. They successfully delivered electronic field trips to thousands of students in Maine and were invited into schools that had never engaged with Acadia before.

Moving into the summer, adaptation continued when the Acadia Teacher Fellow team was reduced from a group
of seven to one due to housing considerations. The Fellow designed engaging curricula with the help of another program that shifted, the Teacher Collaboratory, which is a group of educators expanding outdoor classrooms in the Mount Desert Island school district.

The Collaboratory operates during the school year, but five teachers stayed on through the summer to design units on weather, forest health, and birding to be used in outdoor classrooms. The group reported that they enjoyed sharing
resources with education rangers and vetting project ideas with each other before completing units.

As teachers developed curricula this summer, research and reports began to highlight some shortcomings of remote learning during the spring, particularly for elementary-aged students and more vulnerable communities dealing with racial injustice, learning disabilities, and poverty. In addition, educators and parents were told to prepare for remote, hybrid, or in-person models of learning for the fall semester.

With this information in mind, the teacher team and education rangers brainstormed ways to improve the learning experience among trails, pavilions, greenhouses, and other outdoor spaces. And public schools are realizing that the proven long-term value of students spending time outdoors increases social and emotional health, as well as academic outcomes.

This year, six Maine communities have been awarded Outdoor Classroom Grants so far: Ellsworth, Hancock, Deer Isle- Stonington, Islesboro, Lee, and Southwest Harbor. Previously, FOA’s goal was to issue three per year.

Outdoor learning has been growing in the field of education for more than 50 years, and now it is flourishing due to the pandemic. For example, the school district of Portland, Maine plans to use portions of its C.A.R.E.S funding to support two outdoor classrooms on each campus and an Outdoor Learning Coordinator. The district is committing to students spending 51 percent of their time outdoors year- round moving forward.
In addition, the Maine Department of Education was just awarded a $16.9 million federal grant for “Rethinking Remote Education Ventures” to help plan, design, train, and pilot innovative remote learning models, including outdoor learning. We look forward to collaborating with the state and other educational partners on this extraordinary movement.
The current collection of outdoor learning initiatives is FOA’s and the park’s way of saying that Acadia misses its students! The mobile ranger studios, Outdoor Classroom Grants, interactive lesson plans, and the Nature Study Kits speak to how much we want to connect Maine students to the park and to the outdoors. Nature is a great venue for studying safely and improving health and academic outcomes this year and beyond. We hope students and teachers enjoy some fresh air and sunshine this fall and find time to take a virtual trip to Acadia!

PAIGE STEELE is Friends of Acadia’s Conservation Projects Manager. FOA Journal, Fall 2020