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Leslie Connolly and Jackie Atherley are a dynamic duo. Working together at Hanover’s Bernice A. Ray School, the two are embarking on an effort to ensure their kindergarteners and first graders are spending more time outdoors engaging with the natural treasures the Upper Valley offers.

“Getting outside levels the playing field for all kids,” Leslie says. “Some students that might not excel in a classroom setting really shine when you take them outdoors. It also helps kids learn to take risks and negotiate situations and solve problems that they don’t encounter in a classroom. It’s great for sensory integration, developing self-regulation, and executive function skills too.”

This year, Leslie has committed to getting her students outside for an outdoor classroom experience every Friday afternoon. “In the past, my use of the outdoor classroom hasn’t been consistent, even though it’s something I really believe in. This year, with the support of our administration and the Wellborn Institute, I feel really excited about taking advantage of the great spaces we have on our campus and having new adventures with my kindergarteners.”

Both Leslie and Jackie are part of the current Wellborn PBEE Institute cohort. In June, they kicked off the year-long professional development program with four intensive days of learning with Institute instructors from FourWinds Nature Institute, Marsh Billings National Historic Park, Shelburne Farms, Sullivan County Conservation District, Upper Valley Farm to School, and Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS).

As part of the Institute, the two have developed a joint action plan for doing PBEE at the Ray School. They will be supported by the Institute instructors as they implement this plan over the next year. “We have lots of resources for PBEE within our school and our community, and the Wellborn Institute provides lots of networking opportunities and great colleagues to help us keep our commitment to getting kids outside each week while still meeting the requirements of our curriculum.”

Jackie is inspired to do this work because, “many kids with busy schedules don’t have a chance to play outside like we did when we were young, so sometimes school is the only place that they get the opportunity to play in an unstructured way without lots of rules and adult intervention.”

Leslie reported that they are off to a great start this school year, but her first day out with her students was less than ideal: “Six students stepped into a hornets’ nest on the ground and got swarmed. It was total bedlam with screaming and crying and children racing with their arms flailing wildly into the nurse’s office to treat multiple stings. Parents had to be notified. Kids were literally shouting, “I hate the woods! I’m never going out there again!” It was mortifying. But, this week we did a unit about bees, wasps, and hornets, and students are really interested in how bees work together to build and defend their nests. We tied in it with our current monarch butterfly study and looked at the similarities and differences between the insects and their life cycles.”

“Next week, we’ll go out again. We’ll avoid the hornets’ territory and have a new adventure together. Kids are resilient, and they need to know that they can bounce back from challenging experiences and be braver and smarter because of them.”              

Jackie says, “We are just getting started with our outdoor classroom, but we already see excitement and an eagerness to get outside each week with our students.  We’ve also had a very positive response from the parents of our students who are thrilled to know their children will be getting outside for more play and learning.”