Taking Learning Outdoors: Merrick-Moore Elementary

In an era where technology often dominates educational discourse, Merrick-Moore Elementary in Durham Public Schools (DPS) is offering a distinctive approach centered around outdoor education. At the forefront of this initiative is Stephen Mullaney, a teacher with a deep appreciation for the outdoors, who champions the idea that nature can be an enriching educational tool. We had the chance to chat with Stephen and learn more about what’s happening at Merrick-Moore.

Hikes as part of the curriculum are standard at Merrick-Moore.

Guiding Outdoor Learning:

Stephen’s responsibilities at Merrick-Moore extend beyond standard classroom instruction. Drawing from his extensive experience in the outdoor industry, he is the “Outdoor Adventure and Education Leader” and aids in integrating Outdoor and Adventure Education into the curriculum by modeling, teaching lessons, co-teaching, researching ideas for instruction and aiding educators in feeling successful during their instruction outdoors.

“My goal is for students to have an experience that gives them a sense of being wild in the wild, while still being safe and coming back better than when they stepped outside.”

An interesting aspect of the school’s approach is the incorporation of outdoor learning into every educator’s Professional Development plan by having each educator at Merrick Moore include a section about outdoor learning. This approach, supported by Stephen and the school’s leadership team, seeks to make outdoor experiences a more consistent part of the educational process. It took a team, a community and schoolwide adoption of action and philosophy to allow the school to shift and grow in outdoor learning.

Having worked in the outdoor industry as a guide, expedition leader and guide trainer for 25 years, Mullaney uses his past experiences to offer guidance, ensuring that students and educators alike approach the outdoors with knowledge, respect, and enthusiasm.

Stephen’s students have hiked parts of the MST (Mountains to Sea Trail), rock climbed on Pilot Mountain, paddled scenic waterways, and fished. Through his guidance he’s taught over 200 students how to bike and bike safely so they can enjoy the trails in NC. Students are learning Leave No Trace Principles, Fire Safety, and how to cook when in camp.  They have even built trails at school so students can hike in the woods everyday.

Books and learning shouldn’t be confined to the classroom.

The Birth of Wilderness Wednesday

“Wilderness Wednesday” is a notable school-wide initiative that captures the essence of Merrick-Moore’s outdoor emphasis. The day engages students with a slew of community partners — from state park rangers to local scientists and other organizations that want to educate students about the environment. Merrick-Moore has also added TIO, or “Teach It Outside” weeks for every teacher. This is when their teachers lead all the activities rather than community partners. Through interactive sessions, students gain hands-on knowledge, bridging classroom teachings with real-world applications.

The concept of Wilderness Wednesday emerged as a positive response to the virtual nature of online learning during the pandemic, serving as an engaging, tactile contrast. Mullaney emphasizes the need for commitment when adopting such programs, suggesting a multi-year approach to fully realize its potential and tailor it to a school’s unique needs. “One year is not enough to work through the obstacles and improve and refine the experience. Just like all experiential ed it may look messy at first but the outcomes will exceed expectations.”

Students paddling on the river.

Experiential Learning in Nature

Outdoor lessons at Merrick-Moore are diverse and engaging. Activities range from trail-building and studying local ecosystems to biking excursions. “Some of our students’ favorite experiences have been developing and building our trails on campus and then being able to use those spaces for classes and to find comfort in being outdoors,” says Mullaney. Students also enjoy outings to Pilot Mountain and sections of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, where they connect classroom learning to real-world environments.

In today’s digital age, striking a balance between screen time and outdoor activity can be challenging. Mullaney’s strategy involves offering captivating, but short outdoor experiences to pique students’ interests. And, as many at Merrick-Moore have observed, given a choice, the allure of nature often resonates strongly with students.

Learning and nature go hand-in-hand.

Outdoor education plays an invaluable role in the lives of students across The Great Trails State. As we dive into the start of a new school year during Year of the Trail, it’s important to reflect on the ways nature can complement and enhance traditional learning methods. As Mullaney found in one notable project, students applying mathematics and hands-on learning to design rafts for the Eno River can make education fun and engaging. It’s a testament to the limitless potential of integrating education and nature.