“Every day I go out with kids is wonderful”, Lindsay Putnam reflects. “Perhaps one thing that is particularly good to hear is when a child says, “Do I have to go to recess now? Can’t I keep doing this?” Then I know they are inspired and happy.”

Lindsay is the LEEEP Education and Sustainability Coordinator at Marion Cross Elementary School in Norwich.LEEEP stands for, “Learning about the Environment through Experiential Education Projects”. In addition to habitat studies with each classroom, Lindsay organizes hands-on, place-based learning throughout the curriculum at all grade levels.

“The best thing about LEEEP is seeing the joy that outdoor learning and outdoor work brings to children,” Lindsay says.

The main focus of LEEEP is on inquiry-based science using local habitats—forest, field, river, stream. Lindsay also partners with teachers to help them with classroom investigations that relate to habitat studies, orienteering, nature photography, and community service projects.

Lindsay grew up in rural Vermont and was always outdoors. “Being from a small town, the idea of place—local community as well as the environment—was, without talking about it, foremost. I loved teaching from my first day at my first school, so it was ultimately natural for me to put the two loves together.”

“I will say, however, that one of the most important PBEE experiences for me was the Forest for Every Classroom” program,” reflects Lindsay. “This is an incredibly rich program which helped me immeasurably to give me ideas, resources, contacts, and knowledge that I could immediately put to use to help develop the LEEEP program.”

"Every day I go out with kids is wonderful”, Lindsay Putnam reflects. “Perhaps one thing that is particularly good to hear is when a child says, "Do I have to go to recess now? Can't I keep doing this?" Then I know they are inspired and happy.”
Lindsay Putnam
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Marion Cross School has a very long history of teachers embracing outdoor learning. The LEEEP program was originally created as a way to support all teachers equally in implementing that mode of learning, including those who were less comfortable doing it on their own. It has evolved since 1998 but maintains that foundation of strong collaboration. LEEEP has grown to include the school projects and special events that everyone participates in, such as the school garden, sugaring, Fall Clean-up Day, Earth Day, and three seasonal harvest “meals”.

Lindsay organizes special science-related school programs such as visits by Mary Holland, and The Caterpillar Lab. She works with students and teachers to promote and maintain the school composting system. They use the resulting soil in the school gardens.

“Supporting teachers new to PBEE is fun. Working with new teachers, I will meet with them to discuss LEEEP projects we typically do in that grade level, and we will make a schedule. Before our first outdoor class, we’ll discuss a plan, our objectives, what the experience will look like.”

Lindsay continues, “There is always an element of collaboration between the classroom teachers and myself. At this point in my leadership of the program, we usually have a very fun and engaging first outdoor experience and we happily move forward from there!” She says this was not always the case, however, so, people who are new to outdoor-based education should not give up after a few glitches.

“I remember the first time I took a kindergarten class out and decided to bushwhack to where I knew there were some very cool mushrooms to see. I learned that I should not take excited kindergartners who are just developing their coordination skills bushwhacking! It was some time before that teacher asked me to take her class out again!”


School-wide Consistency

A big benefit of the LEEEP program is that it enables classroom teachers to do more PBEE than they otherwise might. That was the original goal, and they have succeeded. “It takes a lot of time, prep, organization, and clean-up to do some of our projects. It would be challenging for many teachers to have the time on their own,” says Lindsay.

LEEEP also offers school-wide consistency. This is an advantage of having an in-house environmental educator. Lindsay sees all grades from kindergarten upwards. Students become accustomed to outdoor field work, they learn to approach LEEEP classes with a scientist’s mindset (rather than thinking it is an enhanced recess). The processes and expectations are fundamentally consistent throughout their 7 years even as they learn new skills each year. The consistency enables them to learn new skills more readily. LEEEP has helped to establish a school culture of environmental appreciation and understanding, as well as certain scientific skill sets they might not learn in a classroom.

“Having an in-house coordinator also brings consistency for staff,” says Lindsay. “They learn what to expect, feel comfortable with field trips and field investigations, and we are able to work as a team. I can respond to and support staff ideas, requests, and suggestions for new projects.”

The community’s response to LEEEP has exceeded Lindsay’s expectations. “We have to seek quite a bit of help from parents. At first, I thought this would be logistically challenging. Working with parents has been such a pleasure and a benefit. They are as equally engaged and excited as the kids. When they understand what we have been studying, they follow up at home with their children, go on family visits to the habitats we study and talk about science at the dinner table.”


Community Support

Parents volunteer for a lot of things and have always been a very strong part of the Marion Cross school community. LEEEP has enhanced that. “People see us trekking along the road to the brook and appreciate that we are learning about our local environment. Community members have come into the school to give special presentations and classes. And the students have given presentations to the Conservation Commission. Community members see the hand-painted trail markers that children have made along the trails and express their appreciation,” says Lindsay.

Subsequently, LEEEP has a lot of support. Marion Cross School teachers are very supportive of the concept and value it as part of the curriculum and the school culture.

And the school is fortunate to have financial support for special projects from the PTO and various community organizations and funds. The Frye Fund for Experiential Education, the Norwich Conservation Commission, the Norwich Women’s Club, Norwich Lions Club, the Byrne Foundation, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Wellborn Fund, parents, and anonymous donors have all made LEEEP possible. With the support of the administration and after 20 years of grants and special allocations, the program coordinator’s stipend is now included in the school budget.

School Principal, Bill Hammond, says, “The LEEEP program is a pillar of Marion Cross School. Our identity would be substantially different, and inferior if we didn’t have LEEEP as part of the students’ education.”

Bill continues, “One key element—and one that is not tested and assessed—is how much kids learn to pay attention. Yesterday, for example, a special-needs student stopped to see me and pulled two feathers out of his pocket. He had found them at home, and we wondered what kind of bird they came from. At first, he said “pigeon,” but after he started enumerating the reasons for his decision—the color of the feathers, their shape, their length, why they might have fallen—what began as an identification became an exercise in thinking and decision-making. And at the end, he decided he wanted to check his conclusion with Lindsay.”

“Thank goodness for LEEEP. And thank goodness for Lindsay,” says Bill.

The success of the Marion Cross program has spawned other outdoor programs at the school. Forest Fridays for the kindergarten had substantial support in part because of the impact of LEEEP. Wandering Wondering Wednesdays in first grade are a natural extension of the school’s science focus and LEEEP.