Beth Clarke, principal of Agnes Gray elementary school in West Paris, and Seal Rossignol, of the Center for an Ecology Based Economy in Norway, stand in a clearing that will be the site of one of the outdoor classrooms. Credit: Patty Wight | Maine Public

As schools in Maine make plans for how to safely return students to the classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic, some are thinking outside the box — literally.

A number of principals and superintendents are devising ways to move learning outdoors, even as the weather turns much colder. Some educators said the pandemic has spurred them to make changes that they have wanted to try for some time. Beth Clarke, a principal at West Paris’ elementary school, sees a good space for outdoor learning in a schoolyard orchard planted by students.

“The idea is that we will set up two classrooms,” Clarke said. “One down low in a clearing, and then one a little bit higher. We have a family that’s donating 60 beautiful oak stumps to act as seats.”

Clarke said that, for a few years now, she has wanted to move more learning outdoors for the 140 or so students who attend the pre-K through grade six school. The coronavirus pandemic has given her the nudge to move forward, “which I’m not sure would have happened if it hadn’t been for where we’re at right now, as a town, a community, a district and a country, for sure,” she said.

The hope is that spending more time outside will minimize the spread of COVID-19. A recent study found that the risk of transmission outside is 20 times lower than inside. Clarke said the fresh air and distancing will also provide much-needed mask breaks for teachers and students. Exactly how these outside classes will actually work will depend largely on the teachers who lead them.

Seal Rossignol is committed to helping teachers cross the four-walled divide.

“There’s the idea that anything you can teach inside, you can probably teach outside. And if you can teach outside, go ahead and do that,” said Rossignol, the education and programming coordinator at the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy of Norway.

Rossignol said that it is OK to start simple, even by just bringing kids outside for independent reading.

“I think this could be a model for so many other schools across the state. It’s really exciting,” Rossignol said.

Other schools are pursuing this idea, even in just the past few weeks.

“It has really just exploded,” said Nathan Broaddus, coordinator of the Nature Based Education Consortium. The group recently hosted a webinar on outdoor learning that drew more than 200 participants.

But Broaddus said the idea is not new. In the early 1900s, a school in Rhode Island was the first in the country to adopt what would soon become an ‘open air’ movement, sparked by a major public health threat at the time, tuberculosis. Broaddus said the benefits of taking students outside extend beyond physical health.

“We know that learning outside has really profound impacts on youth and youth wellbeing,” Broaddus said. “And if there’s ever a time when youth could benefit from the social and emotional benefits of being outside when that would have a really meaningful impact, this really seems like a necessity today.”

Portland Public Schools considers it a necessity. Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend said work is underway to establish at least two outdoor classrooms at each of the district’s schools. They will be simple spaces, and the department is enlisting the help of volunteers from the Portland Society for Architecture.

“And they’ve been doing site walk-throughs to do what they’ve termed kind of ‘quick and dirty’ interventions to create some of these outdoor spaces,” Townsend said. “So that could look like bringing hay bales for seating or cut up logs, things like that.”

Townsend said increasing opportunities to be outside in the first couple of months of the school year will be critical to help mitigate risk. But the new spaces will be used, in some way, all year-round.

A couple hundred miles to the north, Katahdin Elementary School Principal Marie Robinson said she also envisions students learning outside in all seasons.

“The one thing that I remind teachers is, we have the building, and it’s not like you can’t come in and warm up,” she said.

Robinson said she plans to set up white boards in the school’s outdoor pavilion. But the focus of outdoor learning will be more exploratory. Things like finding shapes in nature, observing and writing about seasonal changes, and using natural objects to count and measure in math. It’s an approach that she wants to put into place for the long term.

“This pandemic, as horrible as it is in a lot of cases, I’m also looking at as an opportunity to enhance our outdoor experiences for kids,” Robinson said.

And in the near-term, Clarke said making plans for outdoor learning at the elementary school in West Paris has brought a much-needed bright spot amid the stress of reconfiguring classrooms and working out transportation logistics so that kids can return to school.

“It doesn’t bring you a whole lot of joy,” Clarke said. “So thinking about what we’re planning for outside, it’s just something to hold onto that you know is going to bring smiles to our kids faces and you know our teachers are going to appreciate.”

The Maine Department of Education said it is supportive of efforts to expand outdoor learning. It has received a federal grant that can likely be used to fund pilots that may one day become models for schools state-wide.

And Broaddus said there are plenty of organizations with decades of experience ready and eager to help teachers and districts move learning outdoors.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.