Zane Thomas, age 7, gathers tree branches and wooden planks to build a fort as part of East Grand School's new outdoor learning program. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

DANFORTH, Maine — A different type of learning is taking place at East Grand School in Danforth, one that doesn’t happen within the confines of a traditional classroom.

In a wooded area behind the school, children run around freely and build forts out of logs and planks. Kids in pre-kindergarten enjoy the fresh air while working on coloring projects. Older students sit around an outdoor fireplace and learn about social studies.

These new applications to learning are part of an outdoors-based developmental program for children, known as TimberNook, created by New Hampshire-based pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom. TimberNook seeks to improve children’s physical coordination as well as inspire creative thinking and neurological development.

East Grand School is just the second public school in the United States to adopt this program, the first being in Illinois. It’s held at the school once or twice a week for two-hour sessions, after which the children return to the classroom to resume normal indoor education.

The new outdoor curriculum comes as East Grand School, along with other schools in Maine, look to handle a school semester marked by new guidelines meant to prevent potential spread of COVID-19, as the virus continues to register at tens of thousands of cases daily in the United States.

Clockwise from left: Sophie Simon, age 9, paints on wood pieces as part of East Grand School’s new outdoor learning; Eighth grade students sit around an outdoor fireplace as they learn social studies at East Grand School; Larry Whiting, left, a 9-year-old student at East Grand School, stands in an outdoor fort he and his classmates made. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

“It’s all through play, and so it inspires creativity,” Hanscom, whose TimberNook program also exists in private schools and summer camps around the world, said. “It works some things you can’t replicate in a classroom setting.”

The fort-building exercise the younger students work on at East Grand is an example of TimberNook’s approach. While some kids work together to build large, complex forts, Sophie Simon, 9, sits and builds a small miniature-sized fort, decorating it with paint — a sign of the differing creative ways the children interpret their fort-building assignment.

“Some kids are building bigger forts, but I like to build my own little fort,” she said.

East Grand School built new outdoor, gazebo-like structures to host TimberNook activities, made by local contractors, thanks to money received from a Coronavirus Relief Fund through the Maine Department of Education.

The school has staff members who are registered Maine Guides, allowing them to build fires outdoors for the kids to sit around and learn. The school also purchased boosters to provide internet access to the outdoor area.

“The idea of those kids sitting in the classroom for six hours with masks on, we just knew we couldn’t do that,” said Margaret White, the superintendent for East Grand School. “When they’re out there, they’re working hard, so they are ready to come back and take part in class.”

White said the benefits have already been apparent, with children showing better classroom participation after returning from the outdoors. She said the school intends to continue to use the outdoor learning model even after the virus subsides.

“Our high school was always very outdoors, so it’s nice to be able to include our pre-K to sixth grade in this,” White said. “It gives them ideas and imagination of things to write about.”

Correction: An earlier headline on this story misstated where East Grand School is located.

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