Students Kyptin Deehan (left) and Izzabelle Engstrom study on a bench while taking advantage of the Penquis Adventure Trail built at Penquis Valley Middle School in Milo provide an outdoor learning environment. Credit: Courtesy of Laurie Sproul

Editor’s note: Lydia Gauvin recently completed her eighth-grade year at Penquis Valley Middle School in Milo. She enjoys writing and contributed this story at the suggestion of fifth-grade math interventionist Laurie Sproul, who also assists with the school’s GoGreen Club activities.

Schools all over the world have used nature trails and outdoor classrooms for a number of different reasons. Some do so as a way to encourage their students to go outside more, while for others it’s a way for their students to get to know the nature around them without disturbing the animals and bugs that live there.

Whatever the reason, many schools put a lot of effort into these spaces to make sure that they’re both safe and enjoyable. Some schools have also been using outdoor classrooms as a way to teach the kids during the pandemic. Instead of being stuck inside all day, the students are now able to get fresh air, even if they are supposed to be in class, because the class will be outside.

There are many reasons why schools have decided to have outdoor classrooms and trails and these spaces seem to work to people’s advantage and allow teachers and students to do what they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

Penquis Valley Middle School has joined these schools, thanks to our teachers, Mrs. [Laurie] Sproul, Mrs. [Renee] Wellman, Ms. Kim [Hamlin], and everyone else who helped. The PVMS Adventure Trail is being built as a way to provide space for students and staff to encounter nature in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to through a computer screen or a book.

It has been a great way to encourage students to get outside more and to involve themselves in nature. Students also have been participating in outdoor activities such as collecting sap, building canoe racks and other activities.

“Just stepping into a wooded area along a trail is so powerfully calming,” said Laurie Sproul, a math interventionist and the leader of the school’s GoGreen Club.

“I wanted to help others experience that more easily and often. Going on a big expedition is a great goal, but just exploring your woods out back is enough to transform your mindset,” Sproul said. “The school’s small patch of woods and stream are so immediately accessible to the students, I thought a nature trail could offer that relaxing space, even if it would be a small trail.”

The trail isn’t that big, but it has done its job and has aided a lot of science classes learning about nature and the environment. It has also become a place where students can spend their free time and gives them something exciting to do while they are outside.

The outdoor classroom was originally created so that teachers could take their students to an outdoor area to learn about the environment. But when the pandemic hit it also became a safe space from COVID-19.

The students and staff at Penquis Middle School used computers and other technology in their classes last year, since we couldn’t pass around materials. That made it a little difficult to teach outside, where there isn’t any technology support for a full-sized hybrid class.

Despite that, teachers and students still found ways to use the outdoor classroom. To help support outdoor classes, the school offered COVID-19 funds to outfit the classroom with solar panels for outdoor technology, and as an educational tool.

“The outdoor classroom is another wonderful place for students and teachers to hang out and be out of the classroom,” said Mrs. K [Mary Lynn Kaziaka], a fifth-grade teacher at PVMS. “It is a place for quiet study or full classes.”

The creation of the Adventure Trail started in March 2020, around the time the school shut down because of the pandemic, with volunteer labor and donations. During the following months the GoGreen Club and a number of others helped improve the trail.

In August 2020, the outdoor classroom was built with PVMS COVID-19 funds and some donated material and labor. Cedar logs from the Appalachian Mountain Club were donated to the school, which has helped build benches and trail signs, some of which are student-designed.

The GoGreen Club has also been awarded both New England Grassroots Environment Fund and Maine Environmental Education Association grants, which will allow them to build planting stations, plant native edible perennials and expand and add new things to improve the trail and outdoor classroom and make it look nice.

All of these things help with getting kids outside. The nature trail and outdoor classroom have helped our school in many ways, and the school continues to find ways to improve them so they’re both safe and entertaining.

Words can only express so much, so if you have some free time on your hands or just want to take a walk, come check out the trail and experience the beauty of it for yourself!