Brianne Parker still remembers the conversation that sparked the outdoor education movement in Huntington, Vermont. It was five years ago and a parent at Brewster-Pierce Memorial School told Brianne, a kindergarten teacher there, about a public radio segment that extolled the benefits of getting students outside.
“At that point, my son was approaching kindergarten age and I always thought how wonderful it would be to have that opportunity,” she recalls. “I realize as a parent how important and meaningful it is to spend more time outdoors, especially at that age.”
So Brianne piloted a program in which her kindergarten students went outside for one full day a week. Luckily, the school sat next to a private forest whose owner allowed the school use of the land. She took students on hikes. They built shelters out of branches. They identified trees and birds.
“I’m not a naturalist and I wouldn’t even necessarily say that I’m an outdoor enthusiast,” Brianne says. “But I’ve grown to love and appreciate the outdoors so much more through this process. That same level of curiosity and passion runs through the veins of the kindergartners when they have this experience.”
As appreciation of the forest deepened, however, so too did concern over its fate. Members of the town’s conservation commission learned that the current owner was considering selling the 245-acre tract, located in the Green Mountains in northwest Vermont. It would be the second time the land went up for sale since 2010. What if the new owner wasn’t amenable to sharing it?
So Huntington residents approached us for help negotiating with the landowner and creating a plan for the town to acquire the forest. In early 2020, the contract to buy the forest was signed, ensuring that students and residents could enjoy the property in perpetuity. Public ownership would also mean protection of the property’s wetlands and streams—good for wildlife, forest health, and clean drinking water.
The new Huntington Community Forest is a space for the whole town to enjoy the outdoors.
This week, thanks to Trust for Public Land supporters across the country, we’re celebrating the creation of the Huntington Community Forest. It’s the latest of more than 30 community forests that Trust for Public Land members have helped create, from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the Pacific Northwest. The organization also advocated in Washington, DC, for a federal program to support community forests; so far, the fund has helped 60 communities take ownership of their neighboring woodlands.
Huntington Community Forest also got an important boost from our ongoing partnership with L.L.Bean, whose $1 million donation to us is advancing outdoor equity in communities across the country.
The new Huntington Community Forest is great news for students and teachers at Brewster-Pierce Memorial School, where the outdoor education program quickly spread beyond Brianne’s kindergarten class. Now all students in pre-K through fourth grades spend at least one day a week outdoors, much of it on the Huntington Community Forest.
The new community forest is helping other Huntington residents connect with the outdoors, too. The town is in the shadow of Camel’s Hump, a 4,083-foot mountain that’s tied for the third-highest peak in Vermont. Darlene Palola is a lifelong outdoorswoman, but at 85 years old, Camel’s Hump is no longer her idea of a day hike.
The new community forest offers a chance for locals to explore the woods close to home … without taking on the taxing climb to the summit of Camel’s Hump.
By contrast, the Huntington Community Forest offers ideal terrain—not too taxing; teeming with birds and wildlife, and rich with scenery. “It’s really a beautiful piece of property,” says Palola, a member of both the town’s conservation committee and the community forest stewardship committee. “You don’t have to be in really great shape to do this.”
Principal Sally Hayes says the age of the students determines how they engage with the forest. For example, older students—third and fourth graders—have participated in Japanese forest bathing, in which they walk silently through the woods. Those students are also working on a field guide to native plants and animals in the forest.
Younger students have their own age-appropriate lessons. Jean Bressor’s preschool classes, for instance, have explored species of ferns and learned the difference between frogs and toads, and grasshoppers and crickets. To get acquainted with the idea of research, each child adopts an avatar based on a Vermont forest creature—a white-tailed deer or a star-nosed mole, say—and learns about the animal.
Outdoor class at Huntington Community Forest.
Because of the pandemic, Bressor decided this year to hold her morning and afternoon classes entirely outdoors, where risk of transmission is lower. “I had been wanting to do this for a while and COVID kicked me in the butt,” she said. “I would love to keep it going. There’s just so much good that comes out of it.”
To be sure, studies show that outdoor experiences build resilience and confidence in children. “There are lots of things kids gain from risky play, like climbing a tree,” she says.
Inclement weather is no obstacle for kids at Brewster-Pierce Memorial School: “There’s no such thing as bad weather,” says their teacher. “Only bad clothing.”
Spending a day outside is all well and good when the sun is shining—but what about New England’s long, cold winter? “There is a saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” Bressor says, noting that the parents got together to obtain a grant to buy 60 rain suits for the students, and temperatures into the 20s are no reason to cancel outdoor class.
Some teachers are now imagining new ways to take advantage of the forest once it is community-owned. Kasie Enman, a physical education teacher, envisions a mountain bike trail and a low-ropes course. “Those are things we really couldn’t consider on that land when it was held by a private landowner,” she points out. “We’re in the beginning phases of looking at how to use the land. The kids seem to really love it.”
Lisa W. Foderaro is a senior writer and researcher for Trust for Public Land. Previously, she was a reporter for The New York Times, where she covered parks and the environment.