Embracing the Outdoors: Experiential Learning at Chewonki

There’s something special achieved through Chewonki’s focus on outdoor classroom settings and nature-based experiential learning. While there’s no contradiction between the two, academics and the outdoors rarely overlap in conventional high school settings; something that has heightened my appreciation of this facet of life at Maine Coast Semester. While I had anticipated outdoor classrooms before arriving, expecting to experience the occasional lecture outdoors or salt marsh field lab, the degree to which classes are immersed in the natural environment (both in regards to the classes’ locations and curriculums) has proved to be a wonderful surprise.

As I’m writing this entry I’m curled up with a cup of coffee in the Wallace room, having just come back from spending my math class paddling on the waterfront. The topic of the class was vectors; to illustrate this concept my class had taken to the water to canoe the distance between points instead of writing them out on the whiteboard. A particularly rainy morning had cleared up and my class was left with blue skies and unusually warm weather as we canoed for the better part of the period.

Earlier in the day, my world religions class (a class habitually located outside, either in Julie’s yard or by Campfire Circle), spent half an hour out at the point to break out into individual contemplative practices. It was the perfect end to a busy morning; I spent 20 minutes looking out over the refracting water, taking in the undulations of the clouds, the vibrancy of the trees, and my quiet classmates in their respective locations. We returned to Campfire Circle where we sat under the oaks and maples as we usually do and discussed our experiences with each other.

In English, another class where we meet regularly outside, field journals are a recurrent aspect of the course. Students are encouraged to go beyond the built environment and reflect on their surroundings in line with a specific prompt. A recent one: focus on the horizon.

Outdoor classes are one of the many ways in which the natural world is remarkably present in life at Chewonki. I haven’t experienced much quite like the undeniable, albeit minor, excitement in getting to attend English class amidst the chatter of farm animals and the filtering of late-afternoon light through the trees, or beginning my day by sitting on still dewy grass and watching the sun rise behind the bird feeder in Natural History. It’s fitting that as present as the outdoors is in the mission of Maine Coast Semester, it’s just as inescapable in all our classes here. After this cup of coffee, perhaps I’ll go finish my school day in a similar fashion, finalizing an upcoming project in the Adirondack chairs or completing some homework among the abundance of autumn color in Lower Field :).

Kate Sandreuter, Cary Academy, Cary, NC

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