How a new school nature trail will connect students with the outdoors in Fairhaven and beyond

On a crisp October morning, a teacher at East Fairhaven Elementary School leads a line of fourth-grade students across their schoolyard toward a forest that borders the school property.

A group of four outdoor educators from the Buzzards Bay Coalition is waiting for the students at the edge of the forest. One by one, the educators introduce themselves – lead outdoor educator Meghan Gahm and service members Brendan Buckless, Sarah Gossett, and Tanya Creamer – and then lead the class toward a trail that disappears into the woods.

It’s the very first time the Coalition has held an outdoor education program here at the East Fairhaven Elementary School trail, a new mile-long path that will connect students, teachers, and the community to the natural resources in their own backyard.

The trail winds and turns, cutting through an old stone wall before reaching a small clearing that’s just within sight of the school. Atop a massive boulder sits a tree stump with the letters “E-F-S” carved into the bark, welcoming the excited new adventurers to the forest. Beyond the boulder, a makeshift wooden desk stands opposite three rows of tiny seats made from tree stumps. At the educators’ prompting, the boys and girls rush to claim their favorite stump and sit down, waiting attentively to see what adventures the rest of the morning will bring.

Why was the East Fairhaven Elementary School trail created?

trail through the woods behind East Fairhaven Elementary School

The trail at East Fairhaven Elementary School leads from the school grounds through the woods that lie behind the school.

The East Fairhaven Elementary School trail project began two years ago as a community-based initiative to create a unified trail system that would connect the two Fairhaven elementary schools – East Fairhaven and the new Leroy Wood Elementary School on Sconticut Neck Road – with the natural resources that lie right outside their door, including an existing network of nature trails at nearby Nasketucket Woods and other conservation areas.

“The idea was given to us by the architect for the Wood School,” said Stasia Powers, co-founder of the Fairhaven Community Trail Network. “On the building plans, he had added a nature trail behind the school leading out to a salt marsh.”

Thanks to an ongoing collaboration between the Buzzards Bay Coalition, East Fairhaven Elementary School, and the Fairhaven Community Trail Network, the Fairhaven trails will be a way for more than just students to connect with the outdoors. With enhanced features such as an outdoor classroom, interpretive signage along the trail, and family-friendly activity guides, the trails will be a welcoming community space that everybody can enjoy.

How will the Fairhaven trails be used to teach students about the outdoors?

East Fairhaven Elementary School students learning science outdoors

Students will use the outdoor classroom on the trail to learn not just about nature and the environment, but all school subjects.

Local leaders have already been busy developing plans for programming that will make the most of this new outdoor learning space. For instance, the Coalition recently created educational signs to point out ecologically significant areas along the trail, such as wetland habitats, vernal pools, a holly grove, and even how to identify poison ivy.

In partnership with the Fairhaven Community Trail Network, educators at the Coalition also created a field activity guide that’s customized for the natural features found on the trail. Combined with the signage, the activity guide will allow teachers to use the nature trail as an extension of their classroom, connecting students to their local environment and encouraging outdoor exploration.

Back on the trail during the first Coalition program in October, the fourth-graders christened the new outdoor classroom with a Hi-Lo Hunt, an investigation that helps students see their natural surroundings differently. The trail is the perfect place for this type of lesson; with woods and streams, the trail fosters experiential learning in a way that would be lost inside the walls of a classroom.

“Imagine that you’re all tiny reptiles,” Buckless, a Commonwealth Corps environmental educator with the Coalition, told the students. “How would you warm up in the morning during the colder months of the year?”

After a moment of silence from the class, one clever fourth grader replied, “The sun!” Even though the class was sitting in the woods, the sun shone down through the tree branches onto the eager students.

The outdoor classroom isn’t just a place for students to learn. Teachers are already using the trail as a venue for professional development.

Wendy Williams, principal of East Fairhaven Elementary School, has an innovative approach to encouraging outdoor leadership among her staff. Each Friday afternoon, Williams leads walks down the trail for teachers who are interested in learning more about this outdoor resource.

“The staff has been ready to go,” said Williams. “We have a core group that comes out every week. The whole staff is really excited about it.”

Williams also recognized the desire of students, teachers, and parents to get out and explore the new community trail. “When the Coalition did work with our fourth-graders (on the trail), a huge interest was generated,” she said. “This also made the staff itch to get out there.”

The Fairhaven trails may even become a model for other communities that want to expand outdoor learning for students. A few schools in neighboring towns have already contacted the Coalition about developing forest and salt marsh trails at their schools.

When can the community explore the Fairhaven trails?

three East Fairhaven Elementary School students find a salamander on the nature trail behind their school

Fourth-graders at East Fairhaven Elementary School christened their new outdoor classroom with a Hi-Lo Hunt, an investigation that helps students see their natural surroundings differently.

According to Powers, the East Fairhaven trail will formally open in April 2015. The grand opening ceremony will celebrate the East Fairhaven project and invite Wood School families to see how the new trail network connects students with nature.

Once finished in the spring, the East Fairhaven Elementary School trail will have restricted access during school hours (8 a.m. to 3 p.m.). But during other daylight hours, members of the public will be welcome to park in the school parking lot and walk the trail.

Though the East Fairhaven trail is nearing completion thanks to the hard work of many dedicated volunteers, the project is far from over. A few aspects of the trail, such as bridges and boardwalks, still need to be completed. And the Fairhaven Community Trail Network is looking for more support and funding to complete the trail, maintain it in the future, and create the nature trail at the Wood School. Trail clearing there is projected to begin in the coming year.

If you’re interested in getting involved with the Fairhaven Community Trail Network, you can attend the next meeting on Tuesday, January 20, 2015 at the Wood School. For news and updates, follow the Fairhaven Community Trail Network on Facebook.

Category: On the Land

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Working to Save Buzzards Bay

The Buzzards Bay Coalition is a membership-supported organization dedicated to improving the health of the Buzzards Bay ecosystem for all through education, conservation, research, and advocacy.

We work to protect clean water on the Bay and on the land: