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How a school in the woods of Alna is garnering national attention

Juniper Hill School is off the beaten path, but it's become nationally recognized for it's form of teaching.

ALNA (NEWS CENTER Maine) -- You've heard the stories of your parents walking to school uphill both ways; but here's the story of a school that truly is off the beaten path.

The kids who attend Juniper Hill go to class in the woods of Alna. The idea being, that they experience and are stimulated by the nature around them, which in turn helps fuel their creative side, while taming their learning side.

Anne Stires founded the school in 2011 on family land. A wide-open space, surrounded by forest, the old family home is now office space.

Then, there are the so-called classrooms. "We have round walls in the three elementary school classrooms, then we have a small forest cottage and warming space," said Stires. "We also will have from this big pile of lumber, two spaces that are also for learning, and an amphitheater that will be for our arts program. I think of our classroom and I think this is our classroom; all of this space."

No matter the weather, the students are often outside learning core curriculums like science, math, and reading. "We have occupational therapists who come here and say this is the best environment possible for children, because they will develop really well if they have opportunities to slide and walk on a slippery log, and to climb with handholds that are different sizes and rough and smooth, and listen to Birdsong," said Stires.

Academics often come from the world around them. When the windstorm last October knocked down more than a hundred trees on the property, it became a teaching moment for the staff at Juniper Hill.

"Last year they did a whole forestry study," said Stires.

Students learned about the area, its impacts on wildlife, and how and why people in the community build the shelters they do.

"We talk about being deeply connected to self, to each other, and to the community in which we live. I really think about what would it take for us to be so deeply connected that we stay here, and if were not here in this state, in this community, that we’re doing the same wherever we are."

It's part of why Juniper Hill has become a place for other teachers interested in nature-based learning to study. With the fallen trees, Stires is building a new barn for workshops, where she will share what she and her teachers continue to learn from this unique form of schooling.

Of course, the work on the barn became part of the curriculum at school. "The children were a big part of the process," said Stires. "Thinking about how the logging was going to happen, then the sawing, and the timber frames and the design of the building."

In the open space, where children can run barefoot or in boots, and climb trees, and see nature in front of them, not just through a window, Stires sees a deeper form of learning; one that seems to be catching on.

"We started with 12 children now we have 40 and will have almost 60 next year," said Stires.

And as the classrooms grow at Juniper Hill, so does an understanding about how children learn; an understanding that Stires admits is fluid.