Agnes Gray Elementary School students Wyatte Damon (left) and Lydia McAlister are combining outdoor education with lessons in civics, public speaking and ambassadorship as they work to support Maine legislation that will give all Maine students access to outdoor education. The pair testified before the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Agricultural, Conservation and Forestry on May 10. Supplied photo

WEST PARIS — Last month students representing Agnes Gray Elementary School’s innovative outdoor education programs visited the Maine State Capital to lobby lawmakers on the importance of making the type of curriculum they benefit from available to all Maine students.

LD 1817 provides the means for every student in Maine to participate in overnight environmental education and creates model community-based education partnerships, and contribute to statewide initiatives to broaden those opportunities.

Last week the two returned to the legislature, this time to testify before the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry on behalf of the proposed legislation.

Wyatte Damon and Lydia McAlister were accompanied by Maine School Administrative District 17’s Outdoor Learning Coordinator and Coach Sarah Timm to address the committee about the impact experiential learning has on students.

Timm works not only with school staff in Oxford Hills to develop curriculum that aligns with hands-on outdoor learning, but has consulted with educators beyond the district. Her position was made possible through a $250,000 Rethinking Remote Education Ventures (RREV) from the Maine Department of Education two years ago, which included placing a yurt classroom at the West Paris school. She provided first-hand perspective of helping kids learn where there are no walls.

“There was the long afternoon I spent enraptured while one of their educators taught my class about the history of fire making,” Timm said. “Or the hike we once took to the top of Mt. Christopher in an early April snowfall, examining old cellar holes and newly formed vernal pools. Or, simply watching my students’ delighted faces as they sat, family-style, around the dinner table together, a rare experience for many of them, and made conversation about their busy days, sharing food and stories. I knew, during these short trips to this very special place, that this was the teaching and learning that meant the most to me and, clearly, to my students.”


During her testimony, McAlister underscored how she has benefited from learning in the woods and along the stream abutting her school, as well as the obstacles some families face to provide children with similar experiences.

“Students at our school are fortunate to spend parts of our school day learning outside,” she said. “Being outside calms people, gives us a chance to move, talk with each other about our learning, and observe the world around us. We know other students do not have this option. We have also both benefited from attending outdoor camp programs through trips paid for by school, scholarships, and our families paying for tuition.

“Having these opportunities is expensive. I know when students go home and ask their parents if they can go to camp or on an exciting overnight trip, their hopes are high, they want to be outside. They want to be learning new skills, trying new things. But their parents have to say, ‘no’. The cost is just too high.”

McAlister explained that in order for her to be able to attend a 4-H archery camp program her parents had to save for a year to pay the tuition. “If this bill passes, parents will not have to worry about how to provide these amazing opportunities for their children. They will not have to say ‘no’ or make sacrifices each week. All kids in Maine will have the chance to try something for the first time and learn new skills.”

Damon shared his experience attending Camp Susan Curtis last year, one he was only able to do by securing a tuition scholarship.

“It was one of the last nights we were at camp,” he recalled. “We were out near the beach in a small group. Our counselors had us standing in a group in the dark. I was really excited. I had never done anything like this before. I kept thinking about how lucky I was. Our counselor brought out five small telescopes. Looking through a telescope, I was able to see the International Space Station, Jupiter and about a million stars.

“This was just one experience I had at camp that week. But that excitement and desire to do and learn more was what I felt during the whole week. I would not have had this experience if it were not for a scholarship to attend Camp Susan Curtis last summer.”

“Every day, I see firsthand the benefits of taking children outside,” Timm told committee members. “Academically, their work is richer and more meaningful. Socially, they are in a far better place just by leaving the confines of their classrooms. Behaviorally, they can cope more easily, simply because they’re in a safe, calming, natural space.”

The Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry voted unanimously on Monday to approve LD 1817. Now the bill will be forwarded to the Committee On Appropriations and Financial Affairs for funding review before it is sent to the Maine House and the Maine Senate to be voted on.

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