Profile: Anne Stires ’94, a classroom without walls

it’s only natural - Juniper Hill School founder Anne Stires ’94 builds a classroom without walls

Kindergarten students and their teachers, including Anne Stires ‘94, in front of the yurt that functions as their indoor classroom. 

Kindergarten students and their teachers, including Anne Stires ‘94, in front of the yurt that functions as their indoor classroom. 

No matter the weather (within reason, of course), preschoolers at Juniper Hill School in Alna, Maine, spend the entire day outdoors. That’s remarkable at a time when most schools are reducing outside recess periods to a shadow of their former selves. A typical day at Juniper Hill finds pre-kindergartners climbing trees, playing in the mud kitchen, learning how to build a fire, or making art from the sticks and leaves and pine needles that permeate their outdoor classroom. The children nap – year-round – in hammocks in the woods (there is a warming hut for particularly inclement weather), rocked to sleep by the sounds of nature.

“Everything that would happen in a typical preschool classroom is happening in the woods,” says Anne Stires ’94, Juniper Hill’s founder. “It isn’t about being outside for outside’s sake; there is always a purpose.”

The daughter of educators, Stires grew up oriented toward the natural world. In 2011, she founded Juniper Hill School for Place-Based Education after running a program for the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, training teachers on place-based education. A nature-based early childhood program and place-based elementary school, Juniper Hill opened with 12 students and two teachers. By the end of the first year, enrollment had reached 18. Today, the school is home to 42 students, ages three to nine, in grades pre-k through three. Ideal enrollment, according to Stires, would cap at 60 students, up to fifth grade, by 2020. In contemplating the school, Stires says she observed that, while children from Maine were certainly aware of their natural surroundings, they were not trained on how to interact with them. “They don’t know the shellfish or the trees or the animals,” Stires says. “This is what has happened in one generation.”

A sense of place

A conversation with her parents affirmed for Stires the ideal location to start her own place-based school – on the family’s 42-acre property in Maine. Set along the Sheepscot River, the land belonged to her paternal grandmother until 2003, and was a utopia for her father’s own childhood exploration. Stires began making plans to turn the backyard property into an educational institution, and Juniper Hill was born. 

In place-based education, feathers, worms, and acorns can be used in math and science. Reading, writing, and the arts are nature-themed, with real-life inspiration surrounding the children. Stires calls it “eco-literacy” when referring to the replacement of plastic cubes with acorns or rocks as units of measurement. Like the preschool students, kindergartners spend much of their time outside, with Stires as their teacher. Five-year-olds may pass a morning tracking in the woods with a coyote biologist or an afternoon rehearsing an outdoor dramatic performance. “The whole school is quite serious about academics,” says Stires, “which is why we believe in physical activity, outdoors in nature, and a social-emotional approach to learning. We want children to be happy, healthy, and smart.”

Anne Stires ‘94 reads to nature preschool and kindergarten students in the Salamander Woods outdoor classroom.

Anne Stires ‘94 reads to nature preschool and kindergarten students in the Salamander Woods outdoor classroom.

Through the combination of education and outdoor exposure, students are able to build an alliance between their mental and physical health by learning in the natural environment. First to third graders do math, reading, and writing indoors, before venturing outside – every afternoon – for place-based journeys that often integrate the arts. The students develop a deep love for and connection to the forest, learning to name the trees while studying their ecology. Juniper Hill elementary schoolers, for example, are currently spending every Friday outdoors at Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson, Maine, Nordic skiing and conducting place-based studies of shelter building, fire curriculum, and wilderness skills. 

“This is a traditional school in so many ways,” says Stires. “We are just doing it outside, with a focus on community. Children who spend more time in the natural world are much more likely to be inquiry-based, active learners.”

Educating the educators

Since its inception, Juniper Hill has become a national leader in the place-based and nature-based early childhood education movement, hosting hundreds of teaching observers and offering an on-site, graduate-level course on risk management in nature-based early childhood programs through Antioch University New England. Stires, co-author of the book Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning, travels frequently to speak about the academic and developmental benefits of nature-based and place-based early-childhood programs. 

“What we see is a tremendous commitment to community and to the children’s own learning,” explains Stires, “so engagement is much higher, because we are investing in them and their excitement about learning. Outside their back door is easily accessible, so when we are talking about the force of hurricane winds on forestry, children can see the power of the storm and understand why the trees were uprooted. When students are engaged this early, it becomes part of them.”