On the chilly morning the day before Halloween, 4-year-old Willa Stoll ducked under two large fallen logs to find the “magic spot” she visits at the start of every school day. Surrounded by pine trees and yellowing leaves, she sat for a few minutes, observing the sun coming out, a big hollow tree and two different birds chirping.
Five minutes later, Willa returned to a clearing in the woods that serves as her classroom, took a seat on a tree stump and narrated her observations to teacher Chrissy Blais, who helped her write them in a journal.
Every morning, Willa and three other 4- and 5-year-olds start their day with this observation exercise. They’re part of the pilot class of Woodland Pond School, which emphasizes learning from nature and spending most of the day outdoors.
Education based in the outdoors isn’t new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has led more traditional schools to establish outdoor classrooms, where students can learn from nature and avoid some of the risks of virus transmission associated with indoor spaces. It’s also led more Maine parents, unenthused by the idea of so much screen time for their children because of remote learning, to choose homeschooling, according to preliminary estimates from the Maine Department of Education.
Woodland Pond School, the brainchild of two Bangor parents and housed at Blais’ property in Hampden, lies at the intersection of those two trends. Leslie Forstadt and Aubrae Filipiak, whose children are in kindergarten and prekindergarten respectively, had planned on launching a school founded on outdoor learning, but the pandemic led them to launch it this fall, a year earlier than planned.
“It’s been really cool to watch how the kids have adapted to being outdoors after having been in typical child care settings,” co-founder Filipiak said. “It was a little bit fraught at first with questions like, are they going to be OK outside or will they be constantly clamoring to go inside? But they’ve adapted really well.”
The school’s inaugural class is limited to six pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, with two spots still open. Given the group’s small size, the students don’t wear masks or socially distance, though they still complete daily health questionnaires to determine if they have any symptoms that should keep them away.
While they spend most of the day outside, part of Blais’ house is a classroom space, where students eat lunch on particularly chilly days. The students also spend about two hours inside every afternoon, keeping Blais’ infant daughter company.
Clockwise from top left: Louie Villeneuve, 5, (left) and Daphne Hahmann, 4, both students at Woodland Pond School, sit together on a log during snack time on Oct. 29; Henry Ramiak, 4, runs down the trail to the “pine forest” at the start of the school day; Ramiak, Hahmann and Willa Stoll, 4, (left to right) work on making patterns during their math lesson with teacher Chrissy Blais; Blais sits with her students in the “pine forest” during snack time; Blais leads a math lesson in the outdoor classroom. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
The plan is to keep spending a significant chunk of time outdoors even as the weather becomes colder, but Blais said the students might have to spend more time inside in the colder months.
“We’re learning as each new season comes what’s difficult to do outside and how to manage that,” she said.
Officially, the Woodland Pond School is a homeschooling cooperative, but Filipiak and Forstadt ultimately plan to apply for nonprofit status for the school. Since Blais is a certified teacher with years of experience in outdoor education, she has built a curriculum based on the Common Core State Standards, on which state curriculum standards are based.
With annual tuition of $10,500, the school is not accessible to all, but there are plans to change that. The school will charge tuition for the two open spots on a sliding scale, with families’ payments based on their income. While the school can’t offer a free spot this year, it can accommodate one student paying 20 to 25 percent of the full tuition, because the parents of the four students currently enrolled agreed to set the tuition higher than necessary.
Eventually, Filipiak said the plan is to add grade levels, hire more teachers and apply for grants to allow more low-income families to enroll.
“We really like the fact that our daughter is receiving more individualized attention, that there is a curriculum being followed and that she gets to spend most of her day outdoors,” said Willa’s mother, Kristina Cammen.
On Oct. 30, as temperatures fell to the high 30s, the four students dressed in bright winter gear spent hours in their outdoor classroom and play area.
They ate morning snacks sitting on a fallen log, gathered at the wooden classroom table as Blais read a book about counting, and played with the outdoor toy kitchen and music wall. The students didn’t seem bothered by the cold, and they were curious to explore the pine forest surrounding their classroom.
“There’s a lot of gross-motor and fine-motor benefits to kids just being outside,” Blais said. “And then there’s the benefit of connecting to nature and becoming a steward of our environment, and that grows with you.”