Sixth-grader Owen points to where he believes the roots of this tree extend while playing a game with Ecology School educator Philip Mathieu in Poland. Roots of tress can extend four times the length of their branches, Mathieu said. The Ecology School’s residential programs are being held at the Poland Spring Resort while construction of their new home at River Bend Farm in Saco moves forward. Owen is a sixth-grader at the Three Rivers School in Pembroke, New Hampshire. Only first names of students were given. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

POLAND — A long winter awaited in the woods behind Poland Spring Resort. The only hope for survival: two delicious beans.

The kids-turned-squirrels had 30 seconds to find them.

“If you didn’t get two, you die,” warned Philip Mathieu, as about half a dozen New Hampshire sixth-graders scattered, peeking under leaves and logs and laughed at themselves.

The same beans they were now so desperate for? They’d hidden them moments before, and some promptly lost them.

“Allison, you were so close, and Olivia’s died, as well,” Mathieu said. “If you’re a dead squirrel, you don’t need beans anymore because you’re decomposing peacefully.”

So, on to the next lesson.

While its new, permanent home is being built in southern Maine, The Ecology School is in Poland for a year.

Brady, center, and Aidyn put beans into Ecology School educator Philip Mathieu’s hand during “The Squirrel Game” in Poland. The game compares how red squirrels tend to hide their food all in one place and gray squirrels hide their food in multiple spots. Who has a better chance of surviving the winter — the red squirrels or the gray squirrels? Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

Ecology School educator Philip Mathieu soaks up the sun’s rays during a skit that taught students that while some may perceive leaves, twigs and decaying matter as material that needs to be disposed of, trees and other living organisms need that material to survive. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

Katie, right, and Falynn, second from right, scramble to the nearest tree during the game “Maple Seed Mix Up” at The Ecology School in Poland. The school’s residential programs are being held at the Poland Spring Resort while construction of their new home at River Bend Farm in Saco moves forward. Katie and Falynn are sixth-graders at the Three Rivers School in Pembroke, New Hampshire. Only first names of students were given. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

The Saco-based school has taught more than 180,000 students over 20 years, many of them in its overnight program for third- through eighth-graders across New England.

Alex Grindle, director of programs, said the group bought River Bend Farm on the Saco River after its lease with the Ferry Beach Park Association ended. A new dorm and dining hall aren’t ready yet, so for the first time, the program moved off-campus.

Poland Spring Resort had housing, trails, a mix of ecosystems, a chef receptive to family-style dining and “it was sort of a mutually beneficial opportunity because their primary season is weekends and summer and we do school programs in the fall and the spring during the week, so there’s just a really nice opportunity for us to be able to work together,” Grindle said.

The school averages just over 100 students a week and they started arriving for overnights, which last up to four nights, last week.

“Our primary focus is to get kids outside and learning about the connections between and amongst themselves and the environment around them,” she said.

“For many students that don’t necessarily succeed in the classroom, this can be a really great opportunity for them to see themselves anew as a learner in a new environment, and to succeed in that renews faith in themselves.”

Lessons have names such as the ABC’s of Ecology and FBI Maine (Fungus, Bacteria and Invertebrates). After exploring during the day, they head back out at night to look at the sky and talk about Earth’s place in the universe or observe how the forest comes alive differently after dark.

Brady, center, and Aidyn put beans into Ecology School educator Philip Mathieu’s hand during “The Squirrel Game” in Poland. The game compares how red squirrels tend to hide their food all in one place and gray squirrels hide their food in multiple spots. Who has a better chance of surviving the winter — the red squirrels or the gray squirrels?

A lot of the schools they work with have incorporated The Ecology School into the science curriculum, Grindle said.

“When students are here, they’re away from screens and they don’t have their phones,” she said. “For some kids, particularly the older kids, they walk away with some deeper understanding of the world around them, but also deeper understanding of the people around them because they’ve interacted in different ways.”

They are led by 11 seasonal educators, including Mathieu, who started the morning dressed as a bright-green foam tree, talking with educators dressed as a squirrel and a garbage collector about good trash and bad trash, consumers and decomposers.

Lessons are in small, high-energy bites: pacing out the length of the branches on a tall tree, learning how gray squirrels hide their food compared to red squirrels.

They are also, at least with Mathieu, filled with song, with students repeating each line after him as they marched behind him, headed to the bean game.

“It starts with an ‘S’ and ends with a ‘T.’ It comes out of you and it comes out of me.”

Relax. It’s just scat.

Ecology School educator Philip Mathieu soaks up the sun’s rays during a skit that taught students that while some may perceive leaves, twigs and decaying matter as material that needs to be disposed of, trees and other living organisms need that material to survive.