A student of Milbridge Elementary School rests on a foam square as she works on a writing assignment in the school's forest in fall of 2019, during an outdoor learning session. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Outdoor School

Schools throughout Maine are building outdoor classrooms so students and educators this fall can easily maintain social distance, while breathing some fresh air.

It’s one of the many ways schools are making changes to reduce the risk of spreading the virus while in session. Indoors, students and educators will often need to wear face coverings and sterilize surfaces to follow federal and state safety guidelines. While outdoors, students and educators may be able to enjoy a little more space, and find inspiration and motivation from the Maine wilderness.

“It’s a movement in education that’s already started, but I think it’s expanding right now,” said Olivia Griset, executive director of the Maine Environmental Education Association. “It’s definitely a good solution right now.”

Outdoor classrooms can take on many forms but typical setups include a simple seating area and a roof to shelter students from the sun and rain. Some outdoor learning spaces also include stations that feature different equipment such as chalk boards, tables and sandboxes.

To purchase the equipment and training needed to run outdoor classrooms, Maine schools are using federal funds provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act. To date, Maine has received more than $1 billion in federal funding, and has allotted more than $155 million of that money to Maine schools.

One of the many school districts embracing outdoor learning this fall is the Camden-based Five Town Community School District, which recently purchased 12 large canvas tents to transform into outdoor classrooms at the district’s elementary, middle and high schools.

“In all of our schools, we’re encouraging teachers to be outside with their students as much as they can,” said Maria Libby, superintendent for the district. “Certainly not everyone can be outside all the time, but we wanted to expand our ability to do that.”

The school district plans to purchase large awnings to cover patios off the elementary and high school cafeterias, creating space for study halls and classes that require wifi, since the signal might not extend all the way to the tents. The elementary school is building a nature trail, and the high school is buying a yurt to use for specific programs.

Similarly, Lubec Consolidated School bought three large, canvas tents to erect in the field outside its school, as well as yoga mats for seating. Though the school has a well-established outing club, this will be its first formal outdoor classroom space.

From left: A student of Milbridge Elementary School works on a writing assignment during an outdoor learning session in fall 2019 (Courtesy of Maine Outdoor School). This outdoor classroom area in China School’s Forest offers students shelter from rain and sun with simple seating at picnic tables (Courtesy of Anita Smith). A student of Milbridge Elementary School sits on a foam mat in the grass while she works on a writing assignment in fall of 2019 (Courtesy of Maine Outdoor School).

“It’s time to think outside the box,” said Tina Wormell, the school’s principal. “For example, our physical education teacher, one of the things he wants to do is teach fly fishing [in lieu of more traditional team sports] this year. So we bought some fly fishing kits.”

Portland, Falmouth, Brunswick and Katahdin area schools are also expanding their outdoor learning opportunities this year, Griset said.

“A lot of districts are looking into it,” Griset said. “And one silver lining is that there’s a lot of research that shows that outdoor learning is good for kids anyway — good for their physical and mental health. … If schools are able to build an outdoor learning space and procure some of the gear to make it possible now, they can continue to use it well beyond COVID.”

Several Maine schools were already considering the benefits of outdoor learning spaces and increased outdoor-based education before COVID-19 hit. And the pandemic has presented them with an opportunity, and the funding, to move forward.

The Nature Based Education Consortium recently created an online resource for teachers and school administrators to help schools embrace outdoor learning. It links to information about creating outdoor classrooms, ideas for outdoor curriculums and a schedule of training opportunities for educators.

University of Maine 4-H Centers are working closely with local schools to plan outdoor learning opportunities, Griset said, as are nonprofit organizations such as Teens to Trails. The Maine Environmental Education Association can help schools link up with area organizations and create those partnerships.

In eastern Maine, one such partner is the Maine Outdoor School in Milbridge, which offers outdoor programming for area schools and training for educators. In February, the organization helped Milbridge Elementary School create an outdoor classroom in a forest clearing on the school’s campus. The new outdoor learning space features a circle of tree stump seats and a permanent outdoor chalkboard sheltered by a roof.

“Having students connect to [the] place they live is so important, but especially in times like this,” said Hazel Stark, co-owner of Maine Outdoor School. “We’re so lucky in Maine that the great majority of our schools already have access to the great outdoors right outside their schools. … I’m just hopeful that teachers and students will find a sense of security and a bit of peace, honestly, from being able to go outside.”

Sometimes teachers are intimidated by the concept of outdoor classrooms because they assume that means teaching about the outdoors, Stark said. But that isn’t necessarily the case.

For example, an English teacher could lead a read-aloud session on the school lawn. Or a math teacher could arm students with clipboards and calculators so they can complete worksheets while sitting under a canopy of pine trees.

“Don’t worry about being an outdoor educator,” Stark said. “Just simply being outside is important.”

That being said, teachers can certainly incorporate the natural world into their lessons. The outdoors offers plenty of opportunities to enrich lessons with hands-on activities.

Another challenge to outdoor learning, especially in Maine, is winter. But both Stark and Griset maintain that outdoor classrooms can continue to be used throughout the winter as long as students and educators are dressed properly and find ways to warm up, whether that’s by staying active or rotating indoors to enjoy some heat every now and again.

“It seems like such a challenge, but it’s actually doable,” Griset said. “It’s interesting. I was studying the history of the 1918 pandemic, and there are all these photos of kids learning outside in Chicago and New York. They had these blankets over them and hot water bottles by their feet. They did it then, too, because they were in a situation where it was safer to be outside than inside.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...