WEST PARIS — Seal Rossignol of Norway’s Center for Ecology Based Economy has become a Friday fixture at Agnes Gray Elementary School. Since September she has led students on outdoor activities that support their in-class education and works with their teachers to develop new outdoor -based curriculum.
Last week the Advertiser Democrat dropped by the school to see what teacher Betsy Cooper’s third grade class was studying as it wrapped up several outdoor learning days that included all sorts of weather, from bitter cold to a snow storm to bright sun.
“We’ve been doing outdoor classes since Tuesday,” said Cooper. “They get off the bus and come straight out here to the woods, and get back on the bus at the end of the day. We’re building skills to be comfortable and safe outdoors. One day a game warden spoke to the class about safety on ice and what to do if they get lost. Then a fire fighter came and talked about fire safety.
“When we came out on Wednesday morning, it was 12 degrees. We’ve been learning about circulation, finger tips and keeping warm, movement and calories, insulation. We’ve focused on how we can make ourselves comfortable outdoors. They’ve learned to create their own shelter.”
The students each brought their own blanket from home and Cooper provided large plastic bags to keep supplies dry. Using those and insulted by their outdoor snow clothes, they set up their own shelter nooks on the wooded hillside behind the school where they could spend brief quiet time to read or work on lessons.
The outdoor activities last week provided opportunity to apply their recent science unit on muscles and bones to hands-on learning – how their bodies need to stay warm and the consequences if they do not. Earlier in the day Cooper taught them about knot-tying so they could hang clothesline to dry their mittens and masks when they got cold and wet.
“We are skill-building, creating a sense of competency as kids learn to take care of themselves,” Cooper explained. “It’s a base for resiliency, so they know they have a course of action to take to make their own situation better. It’s the beginning of them developing their own problem-solving process.
“These are real lessons. They know what they can do when their mittens are wet and they can dry them themselves. They are learning that if they get snow down their boots, it’s up to them to get the snow out and keep their feet warm and dry.”
In connection to muscles and bones, Cooper said, the students were learning about what happens if they get too cold.
“Capillaries would shut down and they wouldn’t have the circulation needed to stay warm,” she said. “There’s a sense of urgency – the kids can see that it is real. They’re very engaged, the effort that they put into doing the things I’m asking of them is remarkable.”
Forest Friday is the day that Rossignol visits the school and leads different classes in outdoor activities surrounding their ongoing curriculum.
“Today we’re learning about parts of the tree,” Cooper said. “Seal combines it with the need to move and keep warm. She is applying the unit on bones and muscles to the structure of the tree and how the tree’s parts work.”
That afternoon Rossignol showed students the different structural parts of trees (there are seven, for those of us who have forgotten) and the role that each plays in supporting the tree, from the roots (acting as the anchor) to the phloem (carrying sap throughout) to the leaves (making food).
“Someone’s going to have to tell me I have to go back inside,” laughed Cooper when asked how she was faring after a week in the cold. ”I could stay outside with them all winter. It’s a joy to watch them take such incredible interest.”
While Agnes Gray does not own land beyond its own playground, the neighbor directly behind allows the students to use the hillside, where last week they all created their own shelter spaces. The other abutting neighbor, a graduate of the school, had placed 200 acres into conservation with the Western Maine Foothills Land Trust, providing students with even more outdoor space for experiential education and activities.
“The kids embrace it and enjoy it out here,” said Cooper. “They run on their own engines. In class, we tell them what they have to get done, but out here it’s their natural curiosity and enthusiasm to use the open space. It launches their learning.”
Rossignol started working with Agnes Gray on outdoor curriculum earlier this year as part of SAD 17’s need to adapt education strategies during the pandemic.
“I’ve been doing professional development with teachers since this summer to take education outside,” she said. “COVID gave the concept more traction but ideally, this is not just a stopgap measure. It will benefit the students regardless. It’s innovative but also not – it’s just getting outside to be active and learn.”
Forest Fridays is a rotation of four-week sessions. Cooper’s class was in their final class with Rossignol, wrapping up a month for grades three through six. When school resumes after the holiday break she [Rossignol] will start four Friday sessions with Pre-K through second graders in support of their classes’ lessons.
“I’ve been introducing the routines, combining activities for students with examples that teachers can draw on for more outdoor programming,” Rossignol explained. “I set the tone as soon as we cross that bridge. It may be a silent entry for students to reflect. Sometimes we’ll start with a song or a read-aloud.
“It’s cold now, so we focus on learning while we’re moving. The kids get to connect themselves, emotionally and socially, with the outdoors.”
Rossignol bases Forest Friday activities on units students are studying in class. While the third grade has been studying science and biology, fourth graders learned about Native American cultures. Their Fridays were spent learning about shelter-building and how native peoples relied on canoeing for transportation.
“The activities support and connect what they’re learning to the outdoors and nature,” she said.
As CEBE’s Programming and Education Director, Rossignol is focused on using classroom lessons to foster a sense of place with the outdoors for students.
“We want to help the community be resilient with the climate,” she explained. “We can’t overlook the role education plays in our needs – for energy, shelter, transportation and food. My goal is to help educators connect students with the natural world, and to help kids build a strong sense of place and their own visions for how to make it better.”