Outdoor education inspires sculptures using ice from the stream running behind Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris. Alice Abbot, 11, of West Paris shows off the progress of hers last winter. Also pictured, Walker Fogg, 11, of West Paris. Supplied photo

WEST PARIS — While many schools across Maine were struggling with how to keep kids in school through the 2020-21 school year, Agnes Gray Elementary School closed only for a couple days. Other days, students of the West Paris school were sent outside to learn in outdoor classrooms cobbled together on the grounds and woods behind the school.

When School Principal Beth Clarke heard the Maine Department of Education was soliciting grant proposals for Rethinking Remote Education Ventures (RREV), she disregarded it for about a minute – she and other SAD 17 educators had worked overtime to get students as much in-person school as possible; she had no desire to invest in ZOOM classrooms.

But as soon as she realized that the definition of “remote” included outdoor education, she saw it as the perfect way for her school to expand her philosophy that experiential learning in nature creates student engagement and helps build resiliency. Clarke gathered Agnes Gray staff to consider what direction they would take outdoor education in with more resources. The school was already tight on space within its walls, so the answer was to create a second independent classroom outside that would provide shelter from the wind and weather (which takes a toll on holding onto paper assignments, much less completing them).

Clarke began Agnes Gray’s foray into outdoor education two years ago, well before COVID-19 was on any radar or in any community. She said they quickly found it was not as simple as opening the back doors and spreading out. It took time for staff and students alike to learn the differences between recess and reading when there are no physical boundaries. For example, picking up a stick at recess would be routine. Waving that stick when answering a question or when attention needs to be focused on the teacher? That required reinforcing class behaviors and establishing expectations.

Last year Clarke utilized the services of Seal Rossignol, programming & education director for Norway’s Center for an Ecology-Based Economy, to help the Agnes Gray’s teachers develop outdoor learning curriculum and activities. Different grades rotated in and out for “Forest Fridays,” when Rossignol came to the school – regardless of the weather – and presented lessons to the students on topics under their feet and over their heads that they could apply in a hands-on way. Some teachers developed units that kept their classes outside from first bell to end of day for a week at a time.

“There was trepidation about going outside at the start,” Clarke concedes, regarding the decision to ramp up the program last year with Forest Fridays. “We’d done outdoor learning for a while but there were things everyone had to learn about playing and learning outdoors, namely when the former is allowed, and the latter required.”


As Agnes Gray’s team pursued a vision of what permanent experiential education would look like, they decided the addition of a yurt would compliment the small cabin the school already uses for outdoor learning. In addition to needing an educator to run it, they outlined plans that included study materials, furnishings, supplies and outdoor gear.

Sarah Timm, outdoor education coordinator at Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris, indicates spaces where outdoor classrooms have been set up. A $250K Maine Department of Education grant will make it possible to add a yurt in the near future. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Fifth grade teacher Sarah Timm raised her hand to take on the role of outdoor education coordinator and she and Clarke began working on the grant application requirements. On August 4 MDOE announced that nine Maine schools, including Agnes Gray, will receive a total of $2 million in COVID-related funding. Timm is now focused on what her fellow teachers of grades Pre-K through six need for lessons and materials. She expects eventually they will be able to lead other schools in the district with similar programs.

“What we’re doing this fall is a jumping off point,” Timm said. “The grant was written such that work will begin at our little school and then we’ll share successes and resources with schools all over the district and eventually, I hope, an even wider audience so that we can help make teaching and learning outside as accessible to others as possible.”

She already has two committed volunteers to support Agnes Gray’s expanding outdoor education: Sarah Otterson, former SAD 17 educator and current school board director representing Paris, and another retired teacher have signed on.

“More volunteers will help,” said Clarke. “It could be as simple as a second set of hands. The important thing is they have a passion to work with kids and for the outside, and the ability to mentor students.”

Outdoor Education Coordinator Sarah Timm and Principal Beth Clarke of Agnes Gray Elementary School just learned the school was awarded a Maine Department of Education grant for $250K to expand outdoor learning. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

“We’re not just taking this path because kids love to be outside,” Timm said. “We’re doing it because study after study from around the world shows that kids are better off academically, socially, and emotionally when they spend more time outdoors.”

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