When Hazel Stark and Joe Horn moved to Washington County to start the Maine Outdoor School two years ago, they thought they’d have to explain themselves to the community. They were prepared to defend the importance of hands-on, outdoor education. But there was no need.
“Every teacher, every administrator, every parent that I’ve talked to is like, ‘Yeah. Our kids need to get outside more,” Stark said with a laugh. “I thought I’d have to defend that idea and be like, ‘You know, outdoor education is really important because it builds all of these skills. It’s interdisciplinary. It meets more learning styles.’ But I’ve literally never had to defend that.”
Since it was established in 2016, Maine Outdoor School has reached over 1,100 students in eastern Maine through immersive outdoor programming, working directly with schools and partnering with local organizations and businesses to provide public programs for all ages.
Their mission is unique, and it hinges on the concept that the natural world can foster resilience and wellbeing in people and their communities.
“The natural world is a perfect role model for resilience,” Stark said. “So we might look at a bird or a whole forest in general and say, ‘How is that still here? How does it react to changing conditions?’ Then have them relate that to their lives.”
Maine Outdoor School is the result of years of research and experience in the field of outdoor education.
Stark graduated from College of the Atlantic with a bachelor’s degree in human ecology, and Horn graduated from Unity College with a bachelor’s degree in environmental biology. They then both landed internships as naturalist educators at Foothill Horizons Outdoor School in California, then became caretakers of Damariscove Island for the Boothbay Region Land Trust.
After that, they had a series of disappointing work experiences in the environmental education field, working 50- to 65-hour weeks at less than minimum wage. These experiences led them to start planning in earnest to establish Maine Outdoor School.
To arm themselves with more knowledge about the natural world and learn more about running a successful organization, the two enrolled as students at Antioch University New England, where Stark earned a master’s degree in resource management and conservation, and Horn earned both a master’s degree of business administration in sustainability and a master’s degree in environmental studies with a concentration in environmental education.
Thus prepared, they returned to Maine.
“Having grown up in Maine, I knew I wanted to bring these programs to rural Maine, somewhere in the northern two-thirds of the state,” Stark said.
They opened the Maine Outdoor School office in Milbridge and have since worked with 17 area schools, including all four schools in School Administrative District 37 and the Blueberry Harvest School, a summer school for migrant children in Milbridge.
Sometimes, these programs are day-long field trips. For example, last year, they led the students of Beals Elementary School on a trip to Great Wass Island Preserve to learn about geology through games, scavenger hunts and journaling activities.
“They had fun. They exercised. But they also learned about the geology of that place,” Stark said. “And they picked up trash along the trail, so by the end of it, they could tell The Nature Conservancy (which owns the property), this is cleaner now because our kids were here learning.”
They also provide shorter, recurring programs for schools. New this year, in partnership with the Cobscook Community Learning Center, they’re running weekly “Thursday Forays” at Milbridge Elementary School and “Forest Fridays” at Jonesport Elementary School. These one-hour lessons get the students outdoors and exploring their school’s property while meeting curriculum requirements.
“They can get so much information packed into an hour outside, where kids can look at and touch what they’re studying,” Carol Ann Lisee, who teaches fifth and sixth grade English and language arts at Milbridge Elementary School, said. “It’s like bringing the science to life.”
While the outdoor lessons usually complement what the students are studying in their science courses, they also often include the use of math and problem-solving skills and can foster growth in art and language arts.
“Today, the fifth-graders were focused on vascular versus nonvascular plants, because that’s what they’re learning about in science,” Stark said. “So I had them find these plants and look at why they’re different, then do some journaling and drawing to get those sort of naturalist skills at the same time.”
While much of Maine Outdoor School’s work has been with children, they’re dedicated to working with people of all ages. And to do that, collaborating with existing local organizations and businesses has been crucial.
Partnering with the Downeast Salmon Federation, they were recently awarded a grant through the Maine Community Foundation to organize 30 fly-tying workshops across Washington and Hancock counties by the end of the year.
“It really advances our mission from the sustainability and resilience side of things,” Horn said. “It’s also an opportunity for people to pick up what could be a pastime or a profession of tying flies. And for Downeast Salmon Federation it was a really good fit because they really believe we need to engage people in all different ways to care about fish conservation.”
Half of these free workshops are being held at schools, while the other half are open to the public and hosted at a wide variety of places in the community, from libraries to pubs.
Horn and Stark are also reaching people and sharing their passion for the outdoors through their weekly radio segment, “The Nature of Phenology,” which airs at 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays on WERU-FM 89.9. The show, co-written by Stark and Horn, is a discussion about seasonal changes in nature. Their most recent episodes focused on the important role beech nuts play in the Maine forest and the excitement of moose breeding season.
“In rural Maine in particular, we pay attention to when the first robin comes back,” Stark said. “We pay attention to when we hear that first peeper in the spring. Everybody is a phenologist, they just might not know what phenology means.”
Now nearing their 40th episode of the show, Horn and Stark are getting more and more feedback from listeners throughout Maine and beyond.
“I think everyone loves to learn about something that’s in their backyard,” Stark said. “It’s a really digestible five-minute thing, and we try to be a little creative and fun.”
As Maine Outdoor School continues to grow, its founders plan to look at it like they would a tree in a forest. They’ll send out new branches — or ideas and programs. Some will be successful, and some won’t. Over time, a tree naturally sheds the limbs that don’t get enough sun. And Maine Outdoor School will evolve in a similar fashion, discarding what doesn’t work and devoting energy to what does.
One of their next steps is to establish a permanent venue in eastern Maine for programming, with an outdoor classroom and plenty of room for outdoor exploration. They’re looking to put down roots, strengthen their ties and make a lasting difference in their community.
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