Teachers across Maine are pushing for the continuation of outdoor learning as pandemic restrictions loosen. Credit: Esta Pratt-Kielley / Maine Public

Cindy Soule’s fourth-graders lined up outside of Gerald E. Talbot Community School in Portland, ready to walk to their outdoor classroom. Soule taught the morning math lesson inside, and the student spent the remainder of the school day outdoors.

Each student carried a 5-gallon plastic bucket, which holds all of their supplies for their reading lesson: a notebook, pen, a book and a snack.

“It’s very fun to be outside instead of sitting inside all day. I prefer it more,” said Francis Orlandi, 10.

Francis and the rest of his classmates walked about 50 yards down the sidewalk and arrived at their classroom: a blue canopy with two wooden picnic tables, a few big rocks and lush green trees and flowers nearby.

Soule’s class is one of hundreds of outdoor classrooms that have popped up across Maine this year since the coronavirus pandemic upended traditional schooling. Now, Portland Public Schools have become a national leader in outdoor education.

“I can’t have two to a rock,” Soule said as the students found their seats. Social distancing is still a thing, after all.

The buckets also doubled as a seat, with some students sitting on theirs turned upside-down, like Chantel Touch, 10. “The buckets are nicer than the rocks, because the rocks are too big for me sometimes,” she said.

But other students, including Francis, opted for a rock. He sat about 6 feet behind Chantel near the back of the canopy.

It was a beautiful day in early June, with blue skies and sun. It was also a particularly windy day, but for Francis, that’s part of the lesson.

“If anything in the book has a feeling of wind, like say the characters are running from something, it can get me more invested in it if I can feel the wind blasting on to me,” Francis said.

That kind of engagement is why Soule, and other educators across Maine, want to continue outdoor learning into the next school year and beyond, even when it’s safe to go back into the classroom.

“I am so incredibly excited about expanding the opportunities for outdoor learning, particularly as we’re thinking about the motivation and attitude of our students, and the engagement,” Soule said. “It makes [learning] so much more relevant. And the beauty of it is they all are having a shared experience.”

Soule is Maine’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, and she has taken her students outside nearly every day this past year.

“I don’t know why we haven’t utilized the natural world as much [before the pandemic],” Soule said. “I just felt this incredible gift in a time when we needed it the most because it brought so much joy.”

Now, the Portland school district is dedicating resources to expanding outdoor learning into the future. This past school year, it built 156 outdoor learning spaces at all 17 schools and hired a district-level outdoor learning coordinator to help expand the work.

“As a district, we’re proud that we offered the opportunity,” said Brooke Teller, STEM coordinator at Portland Public Schools. “Now we’re committed to going deeper with that and deepening our understanding of what outdoor learning can be, and how important it can be for wellness for teachers and students.”

Last year, the district shifted Teller’s role to outdoor learning coordinator. Teller hired an outdoor learning liaison at each school to set up spaces and distribute resources. The district also purchased outdoor learning materials such as buckets, easels, clipboards and winter gear.

While the district was responding to the immediate need for safer ventilation during the pandemic, Teller also knew there would be lasting benefits. She helped get district leadership on board.

“We can’t look at this as just the crisis fix. This is something that’s going to be good for our students long term,” Teller said.

“It became clear to those who were leading the work that this could be more than just a really good ventilation system and could really be a way of exposing students to the natural world, and their place in this community by being outside more of the time,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said.

Research shows there are social, emotional, physical and academic benefits to outdoor learning. Nathan Broaddus, manager of the Nature Based Education Consortium, said access to the natural world improves student well-being and performance.

“Getting outdoors is the gateway to having much deeper, transformative educational experiences,” Broaddus said. “Youth can learn about the real world, they can learn about their relationship with their local environment, and they can connect with others in their community. And whether it’s the school or the town, they can see themselves as part of the bigger picture.”

Through the Nature Based Education Consortium, Broaddus supports educators across the state in implementing outdoor learning. He said Maine is ahead of the curve nationally.

“Maine’s outdoors is a big part of what it means to be a Mainer. It’s a part of our state heritage and identity,” Broaddus said. “That provides fertile ground to build that into our educational system on a broader scale.”

The statewide growth of outdoor learning last year was exponential, said Anne Stires, the founder of Juniper Hill School in midcoast Maine. She founded the independent school a decade ago to focus on nature and place-based education.

“It’s been really, really something to watch after being in this field for a long time to just see the tremendous commitment and spike that happened in response to the pandemic,” Stires said. “But also, I think people are realizing how important it is.”

Juniper Hill is now shifting to become a professional development hub to support educators and schools across the state to create and implement outdoor learning models. Stires started a professional learning community for educators last fall, where teachers have gathered virtually and in-person to share best practices.

“Being able to provide the resources and the professional development to just help educators to feel more confident in taking some of those first steps [is so valuable],” said Johanna Prince, principal of Kingfield Elementary School in the western foothills of Maine.

Prince said her school and community already had a strong tradition of outdoor learning before the pandemic. But this past year, it exploded.

“It gave us both a reason and some funding to accelerate our vision,” Prince said.

Federal COVID-19 relief funding has allowed schools to expand outdoor learning by providing funds to build new outdoor spaces and purchase gear like winter coats and boots. Kingfield Elementary School built a new pavilion for teachers to use as an outdoor classroom.

Prince said getting students outside has tremendous value, but her goal is to take outdoor learning a step further through a place-based curriculum.

“Our school has built into our vision a sense and a desire to help kids appreciate and know their place. And that starts with observation skills and looking at the land, looking at land use, looking at patterns.” Prince said. “I think we are hopeful to continue to move towards that goal of really letting kids fully appreciate the place where they live. What are the economic opportunities? What are the traditions of hunting, fishing, logging? What does a sustainable future of those industries look like?”

The Maine Department of Education said it is supportive of efforts to continue expanding outdoor learning statewide.

“We are no longer responding to a crisis, we are using the tools that we have to move forward in new and creative ways with all of these resources that we’ve never had before,” said Martin Mackey, the project director of the department’s Rethinking Remote Education Venture program.

The state Department of Education received a $17 million federal grant to fund pilot programs that will become models for innovation statewide.

“When given the opportunity to be creative, to be innovative and to be resourceful, Maine teachers and students will create things that we can’t even imagine yet, but I would love for outdoor learning to be part of the norm,” Mackey said.

Marie Robinson, superintendent of Katahdin Schools and principal of Katahdin Elementary school in Stacyville, submitted a pilot proposal for this grant to create an outdoor pathway for students from prekindergarten through 12th grade in her district.

Like Prince’s school, Robinson’s district has been working on outdoor education efforts for the past five years, but she said this year was monumental in terms of growth. She recalled walking through the halls of her school one morning last month, only to find that no one was in the building.

“That was the first time since I’ve been here that every single [person] from pre-K to grade five [was outside],” Robinson said. “There wasn’t a child in this building, everyone was outside doing some type of learning.”

She is working on creating a method to track the impact of outdoor learning at her school. Anecdotally, she said teachers have noticed that their students are more focused, more excited to come to school and that they have more physical stamina. She has also noticed a positive impact on behavior.

“We’ve noticed a decrease in the office referrals,” Robinson said. “There is not one kindergarten student this year with a behavior plan.”

As for Soule’s fourth-graders, they want outdoor learning to continue because it makes them feel good.

Khalit Ibrahim, 10, has noticed that he feels more excited to come to school now.

“I think it’s just better for how I learn and for my education,” Khalit said.

Zac Lara, 10, started the school year completely online and remote. He said coming back to school and going outside for class was a big change, but one he was excited for.

“Actually going outside for an hour and a half is way better than sitting inside on a computer for an hour and a half,” Zac said.

Alvin Rutanga, 9, said he hopes he has outdoor classes again next year.

“The only time I would literally go outside is when I’m going home or when it’s recess, right,” Alvin said. “But now, I’m playing outside, I see people walking. It makes it feel like a special year, you know? Even with the big, big changes.”

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.