By Lydia Gauvin

Editor’s note: Lydia Gauvin recently completed her eighth-grade year at Penquis Valley Middle School in Milo. She enjoys writing and contributed this story at the suggestion of fifth-grade math interventionist Laurie Sproul, who also assists with the school’s GoGreen Club activities.

Schools all over the world have used nature trails and outdoor classrooms for a number of different reasons. Some do so as a way to encourage their students to go outside more, while for others it’s a way for their students to get to know the nature around them without disturbing the animals and bugs that live there.

Whatever the reason, many schools put a lot of effort into these spaces to make sure that they’re both safe and enjoyable. Some schools have also been using outdoor classrooms as a way to teach the kids during the pandemic. Instead of being stuck inside all day, the students are now able to get fresh air, even if they are supposed to be in class, because the class will be outside.

There are many reasons why schools have decided to have outdoor classrooms and trails and these spaces seem to work to people’s advantage and allow teachers and students to do what they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Sproul
ADVENTURE TRAIL — Lydia Gauvin prepares to mount a sign she made that says, “Welcome to the River” at the Penquis Adventure Trail at Penquis Valley Middle School in Milo. Gauvin wrote a story explaining the importance of constructing the trail and an outdoor classroom at the school.

Penquis Valley Middle School has joined these schools, thanks to our teachers, Mrs. [Laurie] Sproul, Mrs. [Renee] Wellman, Ms. Kim [Hamlin], and everyone else who helped. The PVMS Adventure Trail is being built as a way to provide space for students and staff to encounter nature in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to through a computer screen or a book.

It has been a great way to encourage students to get outside more and to involve themselves in nature. Students also have been participating in outdoor activities such as collecting sap, building canoe racks and other activities.

“Just stepping into a wooded area along a trail is so powerfully calming,” said Laurie Sproul, a math interventionist and the leader of the school’s GoGreen Club.

“I wanted to help others experience that more easily and often. Going on a big expedition is a great goal, but just exploring your woods out back is enough to transform your mindset,” Sproul said. “The school’s small patch of woods and stream are so immediately accessible to the students, I thought a nature trail could offer that relaxing space, even if it would be a small trail.”

The trail isn’t that big, but it has done its job and has aided a lot of science classes learning about nature and the environment. It has also become a place where students can spend their free time and gives them something exciting to do while they are outside.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Sproul
LEARNING OUTSIDE — Students Kyptin Deehan, left, and Izzabelle Engstrom study on a bench while taking advantage of the Penquis Adventure Trail built at Penquis Valley Middle School in Milo provide an outdoor learning environment.

The outdoor classroom was originally created so that teachers could take their students to an outdoor area to learn about the environment. But when the pandemic hit it also became a safe space from COVID-19.

The students and staff at Penquis Middle School used computers and other technology in their classes last year, since we couldn’t pass around materials. That made it a little difficult to teach outside, where there isn’t any technology support for a full-sized hybrid class.

Despite that, teachers and students still found ways to use the outdoor classroom. To help support outdoor classes, the school offered COVID-19 funds to outfit the classroom with solar panels for outdoor technology, and as an educational tool.

“The outdoor classroom is another wonderful place for students and teachers to hang out and be out of the classroom,” said Mrs. K [Mary Lynn Kaziaka], a fifth-grade teacher at PVMS. “It is a place for quiet study or full classes.”

The creation of the Adventure Trail started in March 2020, around the time the school shut down because of the pandemic, with volunteer labor and donations. During the following months the GoGreen Club and a number of others helped improve the trail.

In August 2020, the outdoor classroom was built with PVMS COVID-19 funds and some donated material and labor. Cedar logs from the Appalachian Mountain Club were donated to the school, which has helped build benches and trail signs, some of which are student-designed.

The GoGreen Club has also been awarded both New England Grassroots Environment Fund and Maine Environmental Education Association grants, which will allow them to build planting stations, plant native edible perennials and expand and add new things to improve the trail and outdoor classroom and make it look nice.

All of these things help with getting kids outside. The nature trail and outdoor classroom have helped our school in many ways, and the school continues to find ways to improve them so they’re both safe and entertaining.

Words can only express so much, so if you have some free time on your hands or just want to take a walk, come check out the trail and experience the beauty of it for yourself!

MILO — The shift to outdoor learning during the pandemic has offered schools the opportunity to reimagine their classrooms and the lessons they teach. The Maine Environmental Education Association strove to support this opportunity by distributing close to $200,000 this school year, funding 160 schools across the state in all 16 counties. Teachers are using these funds to teach students about the natural world, provide them with skills that enable their independence and ensure more time outside.

In the fall of 2020, MEEA opened the first round of applications for the Mini-Grants for Outdoor Learning Program, a program aimed at redistributing funds to give teachers support as they imagined classrooms outside. After this successful fall cycle, MEEA was able to open a spring round of applications with additional funding from generous donors. This spring cycle’s recipients received up to $1,500 to support projects like teaching students bike maintenance, building school gardens, and designing interactive outdoor learning spaces.

Recipients of this spring grant include educators at Milo Elementary School and Penquis Valley Middle School. The potential impact of these spring grants is hopeful, as applications displayed new and creative ways to engage students in the outdoors and recent reporting from fall recipients illustrates how hundreds of youth across the state have been positively impacted by outdoor learning this school year.

MEEA Executive Director Olivia Griset shared, “At MEEA we are so grateful for the amazing educators who have worked so hard this year to get their students outside learning! Research shows that outdoor learning has hugely positive mental and physical health benefits and also academic benefits for youth. We also know that not all youth have access to the outdoors, which is an environmental justice issue. These teachers and projects happening in public schools across the state are helping to ensure that our youth have positive experiences gaining a deeper connection to nature in their local community. We are grateful to all the individuals who donated to make this project possible and to all the amazing teachers for their incredible work!”

This year, teachers stretched to fill the gap between school funding and their students’ needs. Often with limited resources, teachers are accomplishing incredible projects, engaging a variety of students, and bringing outdoor learning to new extents across the state. The impact of these projects supports thousands of youth across the state! Supporting teachers and schools in the pursuit of outdoor learning is a critical piece of MEEA’s mission as the organization strives to enhance and amplify the efforts of individuals and organizations that are building environmental awareness, fostering appreciation and understanding of the environment, and taking action towards creating equitable and resilient communities.

Dawn McLaughlin, grant recipient and physical education teacher at Milo Elementary shared the impact of the skis she bought for her grade 3-4 classes. She explained, “My students love the winter unit of snowshoeing and skiing.  During physical education classes we have participated in outdoor learning for all of my 35 years as the elementary PE teacher. The students year after year show growth in so many areas as a result of our outdoor units.  I am grateful that as a result of the money provided by the grant that our outdoor experience will be greatly improved.”

At Penquis Valley Middle School, Laurie Sproul was also a recipient. She shared some plans for her funding, “The funds from this grant will be used to purchase equipment and supplies for our recently made outdoor classroom and nature trail. We plan to establish native edible perennials around the classroom area, construct a pergola off the side of the classroom and four planters, purchase basic gardening equipment for the students, and purchase stain to preserve the classroom structure. “

MEEA continues to seek impactful partnerships with local communities and organizations during this changing cultural and environmental climate, as the equity-centered environmental work that MEEA creates plays a key role in building an environmentally literate Maine; where all people can engage civically and understand the relationship between their wellbeing and that of their environment.

MEEA plans to keep this program going by opening another round of applications this upcoming fall. If you or your organization are interested in donating to this fund, please contact [email protected].


Photo courtesy of Maine Environmental Education Association OUTDOOR LEARNING — The Maine Environmental Education Association has provided funding to both Milo Elementary and Penquis Valley Middle School. Monies have been used to purchase skies for grade 3-4 students and supplies for an outdoor classroom and nature trail.

Saturday, June 26th @ Noon

The family of Debbie (Pender) Wakefield extends an invitation for you to join us for a BBQ and memorial service in her honor. Food will be provided. Feel free to bring a dish to share as well. Lobster available (by reservation only) if you wish to have lobster, please contact Kristi by call or text @ 2079493429, or email [email protected] by Wednesday 6/23. We hope to see you all to memorialize our mother, mother in-law, grandmother, great grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin, friend and colleague. We look forward to the stories and memories from all who knew her.