The Evolution of the Outdoor Classroom at Peopleplace
Our Story...So Far
by Sessa Salas - Director of Peoplplace
The Peopleplace Board of Directors had voted on two things: the first vote was to not expand the program by putting an addition on the building and increasing enrollment and the second vote was on a budget that rolled out a three-year plan to increase tuition and salaries, pay off our mortgage and increase our fundraising and scholarship lines respectively. The vote on not expanding and increasing enrollment happened last year (2017), but the budget was voted on just days before the in-house enrollment started for the following 2018-19 school year. In-house enrollment started March 19, 2018. Two days after that, everything changed. That’s how long it took for our three-day preschool program to fill up. The problem was that there were still eight families who wanted and/or needed to enroll their child(ren) for the three-day program. Not only that, but I had new families who had been on the waitlist for months to get into the school. They wanted in for the following year, too.
In the meantime, the teachers and I had been looking into spending more time outdoors. We were seeing an increase in sensory issues and children’s behavior challenges from the year before, in part because of a larger class we had experimented with. As responsive teachers, they adjusted their approach to accommodate the needs of the class. The teachers felt like there were a contingent of children who would really benefit from being in an outdoor environment where they could have the freedom to explore, get some energy out, and develop some skills necessary to be more successful as learners. They found after a few trips out to the woods that it was working. Children were showing signs of self-regulation ability, an appreciation for being given the opportunity to explore and investigate, and were glowing with pride about bringing back their discoveries to share with the rest of the group. We realized quickly that something special and transformative was happening. Suddenly, the world started opening up to us in the form of outdoor education. At that point, several, formative experiences led us to where we are today.
The teachers started to question whether this was something to develop further and really pursue. They began to purchase books and delve into research about outdoor, place-based, forest school programs and philosophies. A few teachers sought out and made it a priority to attend some outdoor education workshops at Antioch University and the University of Maine at Farmington. At our staff orientation at the beginning of this school year, we invited Tanglewood, an outdoor, nature camp and cooperative extension program of the University of Maine system, to come to our school and show us how we could spend more time outside with children. They led us through some activities at Peopleplace and then we all ended up at their campus in the woods for more exposure to the experiential, nature-based education they were doing. Heather Bowen, the Peopleplace Director of Education, and I, spent a day observing at a place-based school in Alna, Maine called Juniper Hill last fall. Since then, three more teachers have gone there to gain insight into how they logistically spend the majority of the school day outside.
Simultaneously, I was in the middle of Lesley University’s Integrated Teaching Through the Arts graduate program. For my Art, Culture, and Community course, I wrote a song and a paper highlighting the connection between Juniper Hill, Peopleplace, Reggio Emilia, Place-Based education, and the arts. That project was the beginning of the process of synthesizing all the information I was getting from so many sources to formulate a cohesive, integrated understanding of how they all fit together. To borrow a term often used when studying science, I felt like there was a perfect, symbiotic relationship between outdoor education, Reggio Emilia, the 21st century skills as defined by Tony Wagner, Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, and the arts. My entire Lesley program was about using the arts to teach content, as a means for children to communicate, to develop critical thinking skills, and learn how to collaborate. These are the 21st century skills our children will need to compete in the global economy, according to Wagner.
Back to that in-house enrollment issue we were having. As soon as that three-day program filled up, I had eight more families bring in their paperwork only to be told they were now on a waitlist for that class. Some of these parents had been at Peopleplace for years. They were shocked, dismayed, angry, and devastated. “Okay, breath,” I told myself. “It’s going to be okay. It has to be.” I immediately started to think of ways to problem-solve. My mind, without hesitation, went to the woods. “That’s the solution. But, how?” I asked myself. I consulted my teachers. They were instantly on board and the brainstorming began. Within an hour, they had figured out how to accommodate those families by offering a second, three-day option. All we needed now was a building. DHHS would not license us at that capacity for that many children on one day without more space. I turned to my Board of Directors. I called an emergency meeting. We all agreed we needed to find a way to keep these families We voted to work on a plan to implement an outdoor classroom - in some form, before the fall. We needed buy-in from the Peopleplace community first. I called an all-school meeting. We met at the Baptist Church downtown. I created a powerpoint presentation. Most of the school was represented. We pitched the idea and voted. “We are going to need your help,” I asserted. “This is your school. The question is, can we come together for the sake of the community and do what it is necessary to get this done?” Following some good questions and an important discussion, we voted. The results were in. It was a resounding “yes”. There have been many moments I’ve broken down in tears during this process. After that meeting was one of them.
So, that meeting was held on March 21, 2018. Today is April 24, 2018, about one month later. Since then, so much has happened. Directly following that meeting, a team was assembled. We have a project manager (Jess Mazur), two engineers (Ian Sady and Jesse Nash), a marketing director/graphic designer (Belinda Aldrich), and two others - one person making sure we follow town codes (Cooper Funk) and the other leading volunteer coordination, and handling building specs (Jess Alexander). This is my “dream team.” As of today, we have amended our site plan (which was approved by the town of Camden) and researched building options. We have decided on a 24’ yurt. The site has been mapped out and trees will be removed this weekend with more site work to follow (Ryan Gates has agreed to lead that effort). Jesse Nash is drawing up the plans for the platform, bathroom, and ramp for town and fire marshal approval with Ian Sady’s help. Belinda Aldrich, Viktorie Mathiau, and Christina Kelley are leading the charge on a capital campaign as we utilize the writing talents and skills of Kathleen Fleury, and several grants have been written and submitted by myself, Jess Mazur, Ariana Killoran, and Wyatt McConnell. I should also mention that I have a current parent who has agreed to donate $5,000 in the form of a matching grant.
For my part, I have tried to encourage participation, set good limits and asked others to step up. Asking for help has never been my forte. I feel like, as Director, that is my most important role - as facilitator. For my thesis project, however, I have created an outdoor classroom curriculum and program guide. I will soon be applying for a new DHHS license to increase capacity. I have also been in touch with Laura Newman who happens to be developing a framework for an outdoor education curriculum for the state of Maine. She wants to use Peopleplace as a pilot for her program. We will receive grant money as a result.
Within one month, we are well on our way to making this outdoor classroom concept a reality. There is a lot of work still to be done, but I have complete faith in the Peopleplace parents in charge and in the Peopleplace community for coming together when called upon to step-up and help as needed. I’ve had several parents approach me with sincere enthusiasm letting me know they are at the ready - they just need to know what to do. A crucial element to all of this is the fact that all of these parents are volunteers. They have been working diligently despite their already busy lives. I am, honestly, completely blown away by their efforts and in the power of community - especially one that believes in, and is dedicated to, carrying out a mission, or reaching a common goal. In this case, the mission is to provide a high-quality early childhood experience for our families and for the entire Midcoast area. While I am so impressed with the cooperative and community at Peopleplace and everything they are doing to make this outdoor expansion a reality, we do need to ask for help from those outside of our school. We cannot do it alone. With the price tag in the $50,000 range, we are asking for others to step up and support what will be beneficial to the local economy and greater community. Ultimately, we are doing this because we are being responsive to the needs of our Peopleplace community - and the community at-large. I have had to turn many families away. There is a real need for preschool and childcare in our area and that affects us all.
What I think is a unique attribute about this project and this program is that this is happening because people care. People want to be involved and part of something that they consider bigger than themselves. There is no better feeling than having a sense of belonging and ownership in something you believe in and that makes a difference in people’s lives. That’s what makes Peopleplace stand out. That’s what makes Peopleplace so special.