GORHAM — In the woods behind a series of farm fields, a band of children marched up a hill in a line in October, each of the five holding a rope. The next moment, the happy, chatting kids, ages 4 to 7, spontaneously broke into groups: Two boys went off to climb a tree, two girls went up a knoll to a painting station, and the remaining girl wandered around a rock circle, considering what to do next.

That moment of consideration is at the heart of the outdoor learning program called TimberNook. Started eight years ago by Scarborough native Angela Hanscom, there now are more than 50 TimberNook facilities across the United States and in four other countries.

The Greater Portland TimberNook, which opened in June in Gorham, is the first in Maine. It has about 30 students, ages 18 months to 12 years, and serves as an enrichment program for preschool-aged children and supplementary curriculum for the older kids.

The concept behind TimberNook is to provide natural outdoor learning environments with some tools, materials and options for play, then to leave the decisions about what to do up to the children. Adult supervisors watch for any hazards or other problems, but mostly stand back and let the children resolve conflicts on their own.

“There is a huge need for it right now and yet a huge reduction in outdoor play,” said Hanscom, who lives in Barrington, New Hampshire. “There is a huge increase in sensory issues in children, and a lot of new science that shows how this approach can help. The number one sensory (problem) with children now is balance. They’re even falling out of chairs because they’re so restricted in their movement during the day.”

Attean Dahlin, 5, climbs a tree at TimberNook of Greater Portland in Gorham. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Other nontraditional outdoor schools in Maine – such as Chewonki, the White Pine Program in York, and Juniper Hill School in Alna – offer outdoor-focused education to preschool and elementary-school aged children. But TimberNook is the first that is part of a national, even global, network.

SCHOOL DEVELOPMENT

Hanscom began experimenting a decade ago in her work as an occupational therapist to see how outdoor play strengthened, reassured and helped children focus. A lifelong outdoors woman, she believed cognitive development and time spent in nature – with its powerful sensory experiences of smell, sound, sight and touch – were strongly correlated. She wanted to see if children who had trouble with balance, aggression, keeping still and socializing did better when they went to school outdoors. (TimberNook serves all children, those with physical or mental challenges and those without.)

She found that children allowed to wander in the woods and decide their own day’s activities – with limited boundaries and no time restrictions – flourished, physically and mentally. Children attending TimberNook programs have grown less anxious and more focused and confident, she said.

Niko Taylor, 4, holds a salamander he found in the woods at TimberNook in Gorham. Maine native Angela Hanscom founded TimberNook, with its hands-off, outdoors educational philosophy. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Hanscom and her staff of 10 in Barrington train interested nature-based educators to offer the TimberNook philosophy at a variety of outdoor facilities and license them in TimberNook teachings.

All TimberNook schools have three basic components: A welcome circle where the children are greeted; an activity or experience that is suggested each day; and other objects and building supplies that are present if children choose to play with them. The schools cost on average $250 for six-week programs, and about $30 for single-day programs. In Gorham, programs run outdoors year round, even on the coldest winter days.

IN-STATE SCHOOL

“In my mind, it is such a natural fit for Maine,” said Beth Wilkins, an occupational therapist and owner and director of the Gorham-based TimberNook. “I jumped at the chance to bring it to this state.”

Elizabeth Wilkins, director of TimberNook  in Gorham, watches as Olsen, right, and Tevah Bernstein play. Wilkins says she does more observing than overseeing as children interact. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On a sunny, cool October day, three TimberNook children in Gorham got down on their knees under a tarp that protected their bags. They emerged with a salamander that one boy had spotted on the ground. Wilkins waited while the children inspected the amphibian before suggesting, “Why don’t we set it where it can be wild forever?” Several minutes later, after showing off the amphibian to two guests at the center, the boy did just that.

“For several in the group, this is their first group experience,” Wilkins said. “They’re really just learning how to be in a group. Here, they always have space to walk away. They have varied terrain, fresh air, such a rich sensory experience. And kids (by their nature) never stop moving. This approach can alleviate a lot of behavioral issues.”

A preponderance of research shows that learning outside, especially for young children, improves classroom performance, said Tammy Mills, an associate professor of education and human development at the University of Maine. Nationally, there is a push to reduce screen time and improve environmental understanding through learning in nature, she said. Though she couldn’t speak to TimberNook specifically, she has seen outdoor learning in Maine elsewhere improve student performance, both for kindergartners and high school students.

FREEDOM TO EXPLORE

Stacy Taylor brought her 4-year-old son, Niko, to TimberNook after he was asked to leave two other preschools. Taylor said her son is a clever, adventurous child, especially when exploring the woods around their Falmouth home. But Niko was restless in preschool, so Taylor searched for a less regimented program. When she saw “that magical little circle of rocks” at an open house for TimberNook, she knew he would thrive.

“My son was miserable in preschool. I often had to bring him there kicking and screaming,” Taylor said. “There were too many restrictions requiring him to sit at a table or in a circle, and follow along with the desires of 17 other kids and two teachers. Niko is a great kid and very smart, but he has so much energy. He thrives when he is given the freedom to explore and adventure on his own.”

Taylor said her son looks forward to going to TimberNook. Wilkins described him as engaged, well-behaved and social. The activities – such as building forts, rolling pumpkins, and painting with sponges – stimulate his imagination. Taylor said Niko comes home dirty, and happy.

“I often wonder, are we trying to fit a square peg into a round hole here?” Taylor said. “Should we really force a kid to sit still when he is only 4 and just wants to play? I sometimes wonder if it is the system that’s broken, not my son.”

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