Sprouts program to extend through winter months
Belfast — On one of fall's first cool days, children can be seen leading adults along paths in the woods, refilling bird feeders and watching chipmunks and squirrels.
Following a worn path, they come to a small circular clearing. Children dart here and there — setting up a safe zone for use of hammers, gathering in small groups to talk about the day's goals, climbing trees and walking paths they've bushwhacked through tall grass and goldenrod. Adults nearby keep watch and provide guidance — and tissues for dripping noses — as needed.
A short distance away, playground equipment is largely ignored in favor of imaginative play as a group. Some children walk paths made from rough-cut boards they've laid out, while others stop at a mailbox for a book to peruse.
While it may not sound like an education program, all of the activities are part of Broadreach's Sprouts program. Participating students range from 2 1/2 to 5 years old and are of mixed developmental abilities.
“There's something about the open space that allows children to express themselves,” Early Childhood Education Director Deb Hensley said. “That stuff doesn't happen the same way inside. … It's flipping the paradigm so kids are outside more than they're in.”
The Sprouts this year will spend their first winter using outdoor classrooms after several years of a seasonal program that uses place-based education. The philosophy of place-based education is to better connect students with the outdoors and their community, while also hitting educational benchmarks for traditional subjects such as reading, math and science.
For example, students observed an adult volunteer cut down a dangerously leaning tree near a favorite meeting place. The tree was then repurposed as seating in one of the outdoor classrooms, while students talked about safety. Teacher Jill Barnes said while watching squirrels fill their cheeks with acorns, students wondered how many would fit. They researched to find the answer — nine — and each child collected nine acorns and talked about the special traits of squirrels.
"Squirrel cheeks are stretchy," she said.
They are also learning to identify birds not only by sight, but also by song, Barnes noted.
"We learn every day with them," she said.
Students are encouraged to take safe risks as well, such as climbing a tree to an approved height when they can identify safe branches to use. Teachers say there have been fewer injuries while using the outdoor classrooms when compared to indoor classrooms.
Students spend time in indoor and outdoor classrooms with adult teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists and volunteers. Outdoor time is not determined by the weather; classes still take place in the rain and are anticipated to occur this winter while snow falls as long as conditions outside are not extreme or dangerous.
"Moving beyond the fence is a little like a bird out of its cage," Hensely said, adding students and teachers have also reported better sleep quality and patterns as they've spent additional time outdoors. " ... [The Sprouts program is] magic," she said.
Past Sprouts programs in Unity and Belfast have taken place in the warmer summer months. While the coming cold weather will pose challenges, teachers and students all are looking forward to the changing season and learning opportunities it provides.
The program is seeking donations of winter clothing, hats, mittens and other warm outdoor gear for use during coming months. Anyone interested in donating can contact Broadreach.
(207) 338-3333 ext. 110
Stephanie is editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. She previously served as editor of Camden Herald following its return in April 2012.
Stephanie also was editor of VillageSoup's Capital Weekly in Augusta and has nearly a decade of experience in the newspaper business ranging from southern and central Maine to Waldo County.
Outside the office, she enjoys reading, cooking and gardening.
Stephanie lives in Washington with her husband Jeff, four children, a dog named Chewbacca, a rabbit and chickens.
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