Lessons in nature

James Faulkner Elementary School teacher Maggie Forrestall talks with Otis Bridges about the creative-writing assignment she gave her third-grade class, offering advice on how to incorporate more details into the stories to paint a picture, on Monday in Stoddard.

STODDARD — At the back edge of the James Faulkner Elementary School playground, where woodchips meet the tree line, there’s an inconspicuous trail. On a quiet mid-morning Monday, it was easy to miss, but following the path marked by laminated paper arrows revealed an unexpected scene.

In a small clearing surrounded by pine trees, Maggie Forrestall was teaching a writing class to a group of 3rd-graders. A giant pad of paper leaned against a juniper bush as she crouched beside each student — some sitting on collapsible stools and others right on the exposed rock — to brainstorm ideas for writing true personal stories.

The outdoor learning space, which has been dubbed Rock ‘n’ Roll by students, is one of several at the elementary school. Farther along the marked path is the 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-graders’ basecamp — a swath of woods, complete with a fire pit and blackboard, where each student can hang a hammock.

On the other side of the school, the younger kids have their own basecamp, which was created before the pandemic. Planks of wood laid across tree stumps form semicircles around a small fire pit. Behind the school, there are picnic tables, a garden and greenhouse, and a blacktop patterned with chalked X’s to mark where students can eat lunch at a safe distance from one another.

Even in pre-pandemic days, Faulkner Elementary focused on getting kids outside, with activities like overnight canoe trips for 5th-graders and all-school hikes up Pitcher Mountain. But when the COVID-19 pandemic pushed educators to reconsider what safe instruction looks like, the Stoddard elementary school leaned into those outdoor experiences.

Principal Allison Peterson said that while the school began using the outside spaces more due to the public health crisis, their continued use has more to do with an evolving philosophy.

“As [the outdoor classrooms] kept developing throughout the year, I think ... everybody started realizing the benefits of being outside. It wasn’t just about COVID anymore,” she said. “... We were still covering the same curriculum, we just changed our location.”

She added that it’s not an easy move, that there’s planning and pre-teaching, setting expectations for students for how they interact with each other and the environment.

“But once you put [the work] in,” she said, “it feels like it’s the most healthy, enriching environment for kids.”

Throughout the day, students can be found out and about across the grounds. On this morning, art instructor Tristan Bridges brought students outside to collect natural materials to use for sculptures. While Forrestall’s students were hard at work writing in their notebooks, a group of 4th-graders passed through the woods nearby, location-scouting for the perfect spot to film a Kid Governor campaign video. An hour later, the younger students ate lunch outside, some sitting on blankets brought from home.

Ardelle Corliss, a 2nd-grader, said she prefers being outside while at school.

“You get to have your mask off and inside you have to have it on, and sometimes it’s helpful to be outside.”

Monday brought warm sunshine to Stoddard, and 5th-grader Mason Bodnar said those are the best days for using the outdoor classrooms. They also provide a welcome escape from the desk grind.

“It’s really awesome … when you’re in your hammock it’s good because you can do independent work there instead of doing work at a desk,” he said.

Amanda Bridges, who teaches 4th- and 5th-graders, said she’s noticed just how much the hammocks can help her learners.

The school has several students with sensory needs, she said, meaning they sometimes need movement breaks, which may include taking a walk down the hall and missing part of a lesson.

But when classes are outdoors, she said the hammocks help these students remain focused.

“They’re getting the vestibular input that they need, swinging back and forth on their hammock, but they’re not distracting anybody else,” she said. “They’re not jumping up and down, they’re not fidgeting … they’re right there, engaged and involved.”

Bridges is no stranger to taking advantage of the outdoors. She’s a former rock-climbing instructor, backpacking trip leader and ropes course supervisor. This is Bridges’ seventh year at Faulkner, and while her first several years were more traditional, her outdoor education experiences have come in handy since the onset of the pandemic.

Earlier in the pandemic, when it appeared the school would be able to offer in-person instruction again, teachers started to realize they would need more than one outdoor space to accommodate all their students safely.

“The troubleshooting was, I’ve got the big kids, so we’ll go make a new one,” Bridges said, of the outdoor instruction areas. Her students set to work, learning how to use tools safely to clear out the new basecamp. And there were other learning opportunities along the way.

The land is owned by the town, so teachers and students had to work with the selectboard to get permission to use it — a good civics lesson, Bridges said. The students also worked with the town to get a permit for the fire pit.

After their lunch and recess Monday, the 3rd- through 5th-graders grabbed their hammocks and headed to their basecamp for a “siesta.”

Forrestall helped students hang their hammocks, adjusting the height and length of the straps. One student asked if she could use a saw to take down a tree impeding her hammock, and Forrestall suggested she try finding an alternative.

“For right now, I would like to challenge you to find a spot that does not involve sawing,” Forrestall told the student.

The outdoor classrooms are also conducive for developing a range of skills, including problem-solving and teamwork.

“There are times when being outside is inconvenient, or not suited to the activity, but I will say having movement and natural transitions and having kids take responsibility for materials is learning, even if it’s not officially looking that way as a part of the lesson.”

And just because the weather is getting cooler doesn’t mean students will soon abandon their basecamps. Last year, kids continued using the outdoor classrooms until February, Bridges said.

Principal Peterson said parents have been nothing but supportive of the outdoor initiatives. Looking ahead, it’s difficult to anticipate how the outdoor spaces will change or evolve, she said, because it’s really the students who are guiding those developments.

“I’ve taught and been a leader up and down the East Coast, from Virginia up to New Hampshire,” she said. “This is my first time in a small rural school, and every time I come in, I think about how this is really how it should be.”

Molly Bolan can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436 or mbolan@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @BolanMolly.