CREA’s Outdoor Learning Network

This article was originally published in CREA’s Fall 2019 newsletter.

Let’s imagine you’re an elementary teacher, devoted to your students and looking for ways to enhance your teaching. You recognize that introducing regular doses of hands-on, outdoor learning experiences would benefit both you and your students. You want to explore new ideas, but the demands of your regular school day and associated meetings make that difficult. What to do?

The Outdoor Learning Network, created by CREA Educators Sarah Rodgers and Carey Truebe, could be just what this teacher needs. Sarah and Carey teach nature-based, science curricula to public school students at the Ecology Center. Through their ongoing collaborations with teachers and districts, Sarah and Carey realized that peer-to-peer sharing was invaluable to teachers. 

Many teachers crave time to brainstorm ideas about outdoor teaching and share their experiences. But, busy with day to day challenges, they rarely get the opportunity to discuss new, innovative ideas – especially with teachers outside their school.

To meet this need, in 2018 Sarah and Carey led a free summer workshop for teachers on how to ‘take learning outdoors,’ thanks to generous grant support from Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust, Davis Foundation, Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust, and Merrymeeting Bay Trust. At the one-day workshop, Sarah and Carey shared outdoor teaching strategies, introduced outdoor activities linked to indoor science, math, and literacy lessons, and modeled the ‘student discovery’ style of teaching.

To create an ongoing forum for peer collaboration around outdoor, place-based teaching, they conceived of the Outdoor Learning Network (OLN) – a place where teachers could talk with other teachers at their grade level, learn about resources for outdoor teaching, and share frustrations, obstacles, and how they have worked within their school to overcome hurdles.

The first OLN meeting took place at CREA’s Ecology Center in June of 2019 with teachers representing almost every elementary school in SAD 75 and the Brunswick School District. The OLN plans to meet quarterly, rotating among different elementary schools. In late October, they met at the Bowdoinham Community School where they toured outdoor spaces used for teaching, and reviewed visual posters that help Forest Kindergartners ‘gear up’ with outerwear and supplies before heading out for a day of learning in the woods. 

At the October meeting, teachers shared rules they’ve created to guide outdoor play, discussed how they proactively address parental concerns, and acknowledged the importance of recognizing genuine challenges faced by students who haven’t ever carried a backpack or experienced unstructured play time outdoors.

The OLN exemplifies the remarkable work our Educators are doing. Not only do they inspire over a thousand public school students every year with their outdoor teaching, but they are working to magnify its impact by spreading the tools (and benefits) of place-based teaching much more broadly across our school districts through peer-to-peer collaboration. We are grateful for their talents and commitment!