Celebrating 50 Years of Chewonki Outdoor Classroom

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On April 8, we’re marking a significant occasion: Outdoor Classroom’s 50th year. This special anniversary is more than a milestone in time; it’s a testament to Outdoor Classroom’s enduring relevance, effectiveness, and transformative impact. As we reflect on five decades of teaching, it’s evident that Outdoor Classroom’s mission to foster a deep connection with nature and peers, build essential outdoor living skills, and instill a sense of stewardship for the natural world is as vital today as it was fifty years ago.

Outdoor Classroom emerged from the fusion of several earlier initiatives. In September 1970, Rivers School [1] began visiting Chewonki for fall trips, coinciding with the establishment of Eco-week, a family camp integrating outdoor skills like camping and paddling with natural history exploration. These endeavors were overseen by Chewonki counselors Dave Barrington and Chris Yoder, who went on to become a renowned botanist and ecologist and a fisheries biologist who later headed the Ohio Fish & Game Department, respectively. This was Tim Ellis’ era, the cusp of when Chewonki transformed from a boys’ summer camp into a year-round coed nonprofit educational institution [2].

In September 1973, Chewonki introduced Maine Reach, a gap-year program for recent high school graduates. In spring 1974, three Maine Reach students [3] collaborated to launch the program’s first multi-week season of natural history-focused environmental education for six local 6th-grade classes [4]. This marked the inception of EE (Environmental Education). By 1975, additional schools joined the program, prompting the hiring of more EE staff and expanding offerings to include a spring program. In 1978, Scott Andrews joined as the third program director, serving as co-director alongside Sue Sargeant.

Former Chewonki President Don Hudson recalls the first program’s weather was not unlike today’s. “It snowed 6” the weekend before, so we welcomed the first 6th-grade kids with everything blanketed in wet snow!”

Fast forward to today and Outdoor Classroom has served many thousands of students from around New England. Over 1,200 students stayed on Chewonki Neck for multi-day Outdoor Classroom encampments during the 2022-23 school year alone, living and learning with peers and educators in the natural environment.  

This growth and success is due in part to Outdoor Classroom’s straightforward, simple, and impactful teaching methods that embrace Chewonki’s expansive 400-acre saltwater peninsula as its educational setting. Little technology is employed beyond radios and classes stay at campsites. Out in the woods – away from social media, the news cycle, and most modern conveniences, students can immerse themselves fully in the natural world and have profound learning experiences with peers and educators. Outdoor Classroom’s longevity is a testament to the timelessness of Chewonki’s approach to outdoor learning, which promises to remain relevant and invaluable in a future of declining access to the natural world. 

Over the years, we’ve also evolved and refined Outdoor Classroom in a few important ways. For example, we introduced an outdoor Challenge Course almost a decade ago to enrich our team-building curriculum. Just this week, we embarked on a new endeavor, inviting students to stay in our recently constructed Eastside cabins as an alternative to traditional tents. Will these accommodations improve the participant experience? We look forward to finding out. 

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Outdoor Classroom on April 8, we extend our heartfelt appreciation to the educators who helped create and maintain its vitality over the past five decades. We also thank the countless students and chaperones who have contributed to its success, shaping it into the remarkable program it is today. Here’s to another 50 years of discovery, growth, and connection with the great outdoors!


[1] Chewonki history buffs will remember that Chewonki founder, Clarence Allen, was a teacher at Rivers School, as were many subsequent Chewonki staff members.

[2] Tim Ellis was the Chewonki’s first president after it became a nonprofit in 1972 and oversaw its transformation from Clarence Allen’s Saltwater Camp for boys into a mission-driven nonprofit organization focused on outdoor learning and environmental stewardship. For more, see He Ignited a New Era.

[3] The Maine Reach students who helped launch EE were Lilly Vitelli, John Lamb, and Connie Hollis.

[4] The first six schools to attend Outdoor Classroom were Boothbay, Edgecomb, Wiscasset, Woolwich, West Harpswell, and Harpswell Islands schools. West Harpswell educator and Outdoor Classroom chaperone Al Miller went on to found The Theater Project–a youth theater program in Brunswick, ME, inspired in part by Tim Ellis’ energy and audacity in creating new programs at Chewonki.

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