Dozens of tiny footprints in the snow led to a clearing in the woods behind Old Town Elementary School. That’s where 10 kindergarteners in brightly colored hats, coats and ski pants gathered with their teacher, learning about animal habits.
The students were outside on the windy afternoon as part of an outdoor learning initiative at the school that has brought kids outside their classrooms throughout the school year. Old Town Elementary School Principal Jeanna Tuell said the initiative started this school year.
So far, she said, it’s been a hit with the students, and it has allowed teachers to show things in nature to their students — such as different kinds of leaves and animal feeding patterns — instead of discussing them indoors as part of a more traditional lesson.
“There’s definitely an emphasis on play and exploration, and then the teacher tries to tie it into the curriculum,” Tuell said.
On Monday, the kindergarten class led by Michelle Reesman was learning about bird feeders and animal shelters in the snowy forest. The kindergarteners had made feeders out of pine cones, rubbed a mixture of bird seed and lard on them, and placed them in low-hanging tree branches.
“We’re going to try to find different areas where different animals might take shelter,” Reesman said to her students. “I’m going to give you some time to explore, and when you find shelter, stay there and see if you can hide from your predators.”
As soon as they heard Reesman’s words, the students scattered to find their hiding spots.
“I’m trying to find a tree to hide,” said Tayla Clark, 6, as she trudged through the snow as fast as she could toward one of the many trees surrounding the little clearing. She found a tree with a twin trunk, managed to make standing room between the two trunks, and stood still.
“Mrs. Reesman, look at me!” she said.
The idea for an outdoor learning classroom at Old Town Elementary developed through staff meetings last year, when the elementary school teachers got together to figure out what new methods of learning would benefit their students.
The next step was approaching the University of Maine for permission to use its land behind the elementary school and sending teachers to professional development seminars, such as Project Learning Tree, an environmental education program.
During the fall months, Reesman brought her students outside to study leaves and collect different varieties. During the colder months, students from all grades are still going outdoors, equipped with plenty of warm clothing.
“We haven’t let winter be a deterrent,” Tuell said. “We want them to know that you can go out anytime.”
During one outing this year, Reesman took the kindergarteners sledding, which was their favorite activity so far.
“My favorite is playing in the snow,” six-year-old Tayla Clark said. “I also like wandering around sometimes.”
On their way back to the classroom after a couple of hours in the snow on Monday, the students tracked animal footprints and pointed them out to each other.
Next week, Reesman told them, they would take snow back to the classroom and let it melt in coffee filters to see what they find.
“Kids are happy when they’re out there, and they’re engaged in their learning,” Tuell said.