Chewonki educator Kyle Wonser films a live, educational video on March 26, with a barred owl named Luna. The owl is an "animal ambassador" from the Chewonki Wildlife Center. Chewonki started the video series mid-March in an effort to continue educating children during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Credit: Alexis Grillo | Chewonki Alumni & Friends

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Outdoor educators throughout Maine are stepping outside their comfort zones and producing videos for the first time, using whatever tools they have, even if it’s just a smartphone.

For people who are staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19, these impromptu productions are serving as a source of education, entertainment and inspiration. And for the video creators, the technology is allowing them to continue to do what they do best: connect people with the outdoors.

“It’s been a really interesting pivot for us,” said Cullen McGough, director of marketing and communications at Chewonki. “We have people who are already experts in presentation. Now they have to transition to standing in front of a camera instead of a classroom or group.”

Chewonki — a school, camp and environmental education organization based in Wiscasset — launched the web page Chewonki@home on March 20, as a place to post daily videos, lesson plans and project ideas. All of their content revolves around nature and farming, and many of their videos star live animals from their wildlife center and farm.

“This is the time to share as much as we can,” McGough said.

Other schools and organizations that have started video series to teach about nature during the pandemic include The Ecology School in Saco, Koviashuvik Local Living School in Temple, Maine Project Learning Tree and Maine Audubon.

“We’re trying to do all these videos in a way that’s inclusive to the broader audience and not require a bunch of special equipment and tools,” said Chris Knapp, who owns and leads Koviashuvik Local Living School with his wife, Ashirah Knapp. “It’s an exciting process. I keep having new ideas of educational activities that follow closely what’s happening with the Earth and the season.”

It doesn’t have to be perfect

Since schools shut down in mid-March, teachers and other school employees have been striving to find ways to support students from afar. For Meg Edstrome Jones, the director of educational partnerships at The Ecology School, that effort has involved pulling out her smartphone, walking outside and pressing the record button.

On March 26, Jones published her first “Nature Nuggets” video on YouTube, offering an easy educational activity that you can do right in your backyard. All you have to do is tie a string on a tree branch (to mark it), then return to that branch every day to see how it grows and changes throughout the spring.

“Really you can’t mess it up,” she said. “It’s based on observation and opinion. I’m not really getting into identifying and hard science stuff. I think parents have enough on them right now without becoming experts on something else.”

Jones plans to continue posting videos at least once a week, giving people ideas for nature-oriented activities they can do outside. Filming outside, she captures the lesson in one shot and posts the video without any editing.

“I don’t think there’s any judgment or expectation of perfection,” said Jones. “It doesn’t need to be heavily produced. People needed this content yesterday.”

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The Knapps of Koviashuvik Local Living School also think that people need this type of content right now. Prior to the pandemic, the family never considered creating video lessons. They have no experience filming or acting, but they’ve made it work using a simple camera and free video editing software they found online.

So far, they’ve published three videos on YouTube for their Local Living Video Project. In the videos, Chris Knapp is joined by his two children as he demonstrates how to make white pine tea, tap a maple tree for sap and make snow cream. His wife, Ashirah Knapp, operates the camera and edits the footage.

“There are twigs in the forest to be gathered, fires to be made and adventures to be had roasting apples outside, or maybe making bread-on-a-stick,” the Knapps wrote on the Koviashuvik Local Living School Facebook page. “We hope that the videos are useful right now, in this moment that we need activities to do with our children.”

Makeshift studios and wild guests

A number of Chewonki educators have been involved in the production of “Nature News,” a new video series streamed live on Facebook and posted on Chewonki@home. Each episode features one of Chewonki’s “animal ambassadors,” which are non-releasable wild animals that live at Chewonki’s wildlife center and are often used in educational programs.

“It’s not something we’ve tried to do before,” McGough said. “I think this is an interesting moment in time. Basically, everyone has a recording studio in their pocket with a smartphone, and around the world, anyone can tune into a stream or feed.”

So far, the videos have introduced viewers to Luna the barred owl, Clover the woodchuck, Adder the eastern milksnake, Ganat the Australian water dragon and more. Practicing social distancing, the educators have taken turns recording with the animals in a classroom that’s been transformed into a makeshift film studio.

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“We’ve been calling it our ABC studio for Animal Broadcasting Center,” McGough said with a laugh.

In addition to presenting and teaching about wild animals, Chewonki is posting videos about farm animals, including regular updates from the school’s sheep barn now that lambing season has begun.

A silver lining to being stuck in your backyard

While video production is new to many educators, it’s familiar territory for Bowdoin professor Nat Wheelwright, who filmed “Nature Moments” back in 2018. With nearly 50 weekly episodes spanning all seasons, the series explores the many ways you can enjoy nature in your own backyard.

Wheelwright thought that project was behind him, but when the COVID-19 outbreak began, he felt inspired to produce one more episode: “ Nature Therapy While Social Distancing.”

“Looking closely at nature, it’s not only a diversion but it’s spiritually nutritious,” Wheelwright said. “It’s therapy for us in a really real sense, and it’s an opportunity to build a brain that sees the world in a more optimistic way, especially in the spring when buds are fattening up everyday.”

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One silver lining to this scary time may be that it introduces — or re-introduces — more people to the wonders of the outdoors.

“If you’re having fun going out in nature right now, maybe you’re a candidate for lifelong learning about nature and you might want to build it into your calendar for the whole year,” Wheelwright said, “even when we aren’t social distancing.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...