Outdoor Classroom: Lessons put a premium on teamwork

by Suzanne Hodgson

Kennebunk Post

October 1, 2010


Sometimes being a kid looks like a lot of fun.  At Middle School of the Kennebunks, teachers are making sure that fun translates to good grades and life skills.

The Education Foundation of the Kennebunks and Arundel has sponsored a low ropes obstacle course along the wooded side of the school with nine obstacles in two sites and an outdoor classroom that will be built in between the two sites.

Andrew Bouchard, Jr., a sixth-grader at the school, was excited to try the rope swings, one of the first obstacles in the course.  He put his foot into the loop and gripped the knotted rope between his hands.

“Spotters ready?” he asked.

“Ready!” answered teachers Tom Taylor and Diane Binger.  Binger is a member of the Adventure Education Committee that started the project.

Students have practiced this drill since school started, making sure everyone pays attention and is staying safe on the course.

Once students took turns on the rope swing, problems began to arise.  Students were anxious to be next on the swing and everyone talked over each other.  Taylor broke the news that students would face a team challenge.

In King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table Challenge, students had to swing into a large circular area marked off by a rope on the ground.  If one person touched the ground before making it into the circle he had to go back and the game started again.

Students solved communication problems by passing a stick to each other when someone wanted to speak.  Other students worked on swinging techniques – whether to push the person up or out on the swing, or at all, and determined whether using the foot-loop was more or less effective than just holding onto the rope and jumping forward.

A few minutes later all 20 students clamored around Kristin Lheureux, the last student to swing, and hugged her into the safety of the rope circle.

At the other site a few hundred feet away from the first challenge, Pam Bridge and her 19 students walked the extended Mohawk rope course, which consists of three different rope walks all requiring balance.

“It’s a team-building day,” Bridge said.  “We can use this in different ways, problem solving, creative thinking, I may come out here with my math class at some point.  For an International Baccalaureate School our  students need to be critical thinkers, and be able to reflect and work together.”

Students here weren’t just jumping to be next on the ropes, they were eagerly volunteering to spot fellow students, so everyone got a chance to try the diferent part of the rope course, having fun while learning life skills.

Many area residents helped expand the course this spring when Get Movin’ Kennebunks group introduced a challenge that pitted friend against friend and town manager against town manager in friendly competition to see who could raise the most money by walking some extra steps each day.

All $10,000 raised from the challenge when to the Education Foundation, which allocated the money to the middle school rope course.

In the summer of 2009, the Active Education Committee at the middle school – made up of teachers and staff – applied for a small grant from the Education Foundation to train and build a few obstacles to teach skill building and team building through active movement.  The course was so successful, Get Movin’ Kennebunks granted more money to the Active Education Committee.

The ropes course tried to teach qualities needed to be an IB student.  Both the middle school and high school in the district have received IB status – instead of teaching from in front of a class, teachers strive to make students more active learners by reflecting, inquiring and competing as a group, not against the group.

Other obstacles on the course are a spider web, fidget ladder and swinging tire set.  In the furture, members of the Education Foundation hope the course can be used by businesses in the community and the high school to help with team building skills.

Back at the first site students reflected on what they learned that morning.

“I just wanted to say this group has come together beautifully and showed we all care about each other.  Now how can we use this situation in the classroom or even at lunch?” Binger asked the group.

One at a time each student gave suggestions how to work as a group instead of focusing on the individual, how to use critical thinking, and how solving problems can build confidence and trust – all traits on a list Taylor held for an IB student.