The Penobscot Times

Orono families adopt outdoor learning alternatives in the age of remote schooling

ORONO, Maine — In the age of attending classes from behind a computer screen and doing homework while still in pajamas, some Orono families are taking a different approach to pandemic-era schooling. 

“Forest Fridays” is not necessarily a new concept, but it’s one that seems to be picking up more attention amid the coronavirus pandemic as families across the United States navigate the new and often challenging time of remote learning. 

A girl holds up a small boat she made out of natural materials during one Forest Friday in Orono excursion. (Photo courtesy of Deanna Fahey)

The idea for Forest Fridays in Orono was spearheaded by longtime educator and parent Deanna Fahey, who specializes in nature-based education and has developed a curriculum on the alternative teaching model. 

In graduate school, Fahey focused the subject of her master’s thesis on the benefits of students spending time in nature, after realizing that children weren’t engaging with their environments the same as when she was growing up. 

“I just started to notice that kids aren’t playing outside anymore,” Fahey said. 

She combined that interest with her love of teaching, which led to a new passion for nature-based learning and educating for sustainability — a teaching model focused on helping students understand how their actions affect their environment. 

A student inspects a freshly-chewed tree while looking for beavers during a Forest Friday in Orono meeting. (Courtesy of Deanna Fahey)

Since then, she’s collaborated with various schools interested in teaching nature-based curriculum, such as the former Boxberry School in Harrison — which permanently closed in June. 

For the last five Fridays, Fahey and a small cohort of local families have gathered in various locations around Orono for outdoor learning activities. 

The group’s students have made small boats out of natural resources near the river, hunted beavers in the marsh, collected seeds and more — while discovering different kinds of plants and animals at the same time. 

“I think it’s great,” Orono parent Gemma Scott said of the Forest Fridays. “With all the restrictions and the challenges of hybrid schooling, having an outside forest group has helped up to stay grounded and active,” she said. 

Students examine newly-found plants during a Forest Friday excursion. (Photo courtesy of Deanna Fahey)

While the once-a-week program gives kids a chance to learn by exploring their environments, it also provides parents a short respite from the stress of remote schooling at home. 

“It’s a great opportunity to get outside with like-minded people and the kids to get to explore together,” Katie Proctor of Old Town said. 

“I visit my friend Felix,” her 6-year-old son, Arlo, said, a collection of milkweed plants, rocks and other newly found treasures in his hands. 

Proctor, who is homeschooling her son, said that Forest Fridays also gives them both a chance to get out of the house and socialize with others. 

“We both need it,” she said.

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