MILBRIDGE — Eight-year-old Leigha Pendleton loves to go outside looking for slugs. Once, she came inside with 30 or 40 of them.
“She had them all over her hands,” said her mother, Candy Pendleton. “We had to scrub our hands very well.”
Leigha, who enters third grade at Harrington Elementary School in the fall, is interested in all kinds of small living things, including ants, worms and moths.
“She’s always outside until she has to come in for the night,” said her mother, of Columbia.
Leigha discovered her passion during a lesson by the Maine Outdoor School, a Milbridge-based organization that primarily serves schools in Hancock and Washington counties. Co-founders Hazel Stark and Joe Horn create outdoor lessons that work within a school’s established curriculum and help schools seek grant funding to pay for it.
The kids remember what they learn.
At Jonesport Elementary School, Horn and Stark led teacher Jeanna Carver’s pre-kindergarten class in a five-week outdoor exploration class last fall. Even at the end of the school year, Carver’s students remembered lessons from the fall.
“For a 4-year-old to be able to recall those things that happened several months ago is remarkable,” Carver said.
Outdoor lessons provide a learning environment suited to everyone, even those who don’t thrive in a traditional classroom.
Alison Wallace, a third-grade teacher at Milbridge Elementary School, said she has enjoyed seeing shy kids blossom through Maine Outdoor School lessons.
“It made my students who weren’t so much paper and pencil kids to really shine,” Wallace said.
Her students studied how critters survive in Maine. Each of the students researched a living creature, drew it and wrote about it. Those projects were compiled into a field guide called “What Lives at Milbridge Elementary School.”
Stark and Horn founded Maine Outdoor School in 2016 after several years of planning. Stark, who is originally from Winterport, met Horn during her senior year of high school when the Connecticut native was just starting his biology studies at Unity College.
After he earned his bachelor’s degree, Horn went on to Antioch University of New England, earning a master’s in environmental studies and environmental education, along with an MBA in sustainability.
Stark earned her bachelor’s degree in human ecology at College of the Atlantic and a master’s in resource management and conservation from Antioch.
Both completed a one-year graduate program at Teton Science Schools in Wyoming, which was focused on place-based education and field teaching. In addition, they both worked for a year at the Foothill Horizons Outdoor School in Sonora, Calif.
California schools have an excellent outdoor education component, they said.
“Every kid will end up going for a week to outdoor school,” Horn said. Lessons cover topics such as nutrients, photosynthesis, predator and prey and plant and animal identification.
Inspired by their work in California, the two wanted to bring outdoor education to Maine. They began by contacting teachers, parents, administrators and students to identify needs and the level of interest.
“We didn’t want to be an organization that assumed we knew what was needed,” Stark said. “We then started intentionally reaching out to different school principals, different superintendents.”
Maine School Administrative District 27 was among their first clients. Superintendent Ronald Ramsay hired them to work with all the schools in the district with the caveat that they could come back only if that’s what teachers wanted.
“We had 100 percent saying, ‘we want you back,’” Stark said.
Since then, their client list has grown to include Regional School Unit 24 as well as others in Cherryfield, Princeton, Pembroke, Jonesport and Beals. Stark and Horn have also worked with the Eastern Maine Skippers Program and partnered with groups such as the Downeast Salmon Federation and Frenchman Bay Conservancy.
In addition to doing educational programming for children, Stark and Horn also provide professional development for teachers.
“They can do it. They don’t need us to do it,” Stark said. “We want teachers to be able to copy us.”