Maine Outdoor School’s Hazel Stark (left) helps first- and fourth-graders check the wildlife habitats they created the week before. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY ANNE BERLEANT

Into the woods: Maine Outdoor School takes learning outside

Hazel Stark waits in back of the Hancock Grammar School by a ring of stumps. It’s her outdoor classroom on days she comes to the tiny elementary school for some big-time outside fun — and education — for first-graders.

“Look, a spider!” calls out one boy, after Stark leads them into the woods to check on animal habitats they built the week before.

Stark’s young students are forging connections with the natural world all around them while also learning science. Earlier, students observed, asked questions and then used that knowledge to set up their experiments — the animal shelters. Today, it’s all about testing their hypotheses. That is, did the wildlife behind the school use the habitats for shelter?

The spider confirmed the answer as yes, at least for one of the several stick, leaf and moss shelters built against tree trunks and fallen logs.

“Our own world changes from a 5-year-old’s perspective to an adult’s,” Stark later said. “But what they can do is start getting to know the natural world” to inform their own experiences of the world around them.

Stark owns and operates Maine Outdoor School with her husband and business partner Joe Horn. Based in Milbridge, the couple offer programs at local schools that align with Maine educational standards and school science curriculums. But their outdoor school also reaches out to people of all ages through guided outdoor experiences and two summer camps, one for young girls and one for women, funded through Milbridge nonprofit Women for Healthy Rural Living.

“No matter who you are, it’s the natural world that unites community,” Stark said.

The duo operates from the modern concept of intentionality. When they realized their initial college degrees focused on natural history, education and the environment were not leading them to the life they wanted, they stopped and took stock. Then, they both enrolled in graduate programs at Antioch University New England with the goal of opening an outdoor school.

Horn earned two master’s degrees, one in business administration in sustainability and one in environmental education, while Stark received a professional science master’s degree in resource management and conservation. Both are registered Maine guides certified as wilderness first responders.

“What it comes down to is trying to find a plan that would be sustainable to live and work,” Stark said. “We couldn’t find that in Maine, so we just needed to create that place we wanted to be in. That’s when we turned to grad school.”

“It really was a conscious decision,” she added. “And then we formed everything in our life around that goal.”

For Stark — who pitched a tent in her backyard at a young age and slept there for five months of the year — the school just continues her early notion that outside was the place to be. They offer guided hikes for families and individuals, organizational services, like environmental curriculum, team building and evaluations and in-school education, which is the biggest branch of Maine Outdoor School.

Maine Outdoor School team with Rain Perez MAINE OUTDOOR SCHOOL PHOTO

“We always wanted an outreach model,” Stark said. “But I did not expect that part to take off so much. Every school wants us back. I’m in multiple schools every week.”

Crabtree Neck Land Trust funded the 10-week program at Hancock Grammar School. For other organizations and schools, Stark and Horn help them apply for grants to bring in programming, rather than apply for grants themselves — part of their organizational services.

“There’s a scarcity mindset that all nonprofits are aiming for the same grants,” Stark said. “We didn’t want to come across as competing.”

Horn said the couple have helped with grant-writing “to afford our programs in whole or in part — from supplying language to “almost writing the entire thing.”

Frenchman Bay Conservancy is a frequent partner, Horn said, helping fund outdoor school programming for Mountain View School’s fifth-graders for three years.

“Where we really shine is our experience as outdoor educators,” Horn said. “We’re trained. We know about nature, and we know about environmental education.”

Unsurprisingly, two years of the COVID-19 pandemic proved a boon to outdoor classrooms and education, and Maine Outdoor School filled the need.

“The pandemic opened doors and got our name out there,” Horn said. “There’s no sign of the momentum slowing down. I think it’s just going to keep on going.”

Horn mostly handles the business end of Maine Outdoor School while also working full time as a carpenter, while Stark is now “more than full-time” at MOS.

“Through the pandemic, people recognized not only was the outdoors a safer place to be but also offered a real sense of peace and allowed kids to play,” she said.



Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]

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