A partnership between the Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire and UNH Extension is working with school districts to get students outside to learn, play, and protect the land.

  • Girls walking in a field hand in hand

The University of New Hampshire Extension’s Health & Well-Being and 4-H Youth Development teams have partnered with the Southeast Land Trust (SELT) of New Hampshire to combine their shared goals of engaging youth in nature, while also nurturing their physical and mental wellness. The Southeast Land Trust’s interest in recruiting the next generation of land stewards with their “Cradle-to-Career” model of getting youth outside early and often to form a lasting relationship with nature directly aligns with UNH Extension’s priorities of supporting healthy communities through outreach and education.

Program Overview

The program is called All-Terrain Learning Adventures (ATLAS) and is a symbiotic relationship between these two organizations as well area school districts, who have prioritized the importance of outdoor play for mental wellness as part of their school’s curriculum. Each grade level from Epping Middle School and Lamprey River Elementary School embarks on a monthly “Woods Wednesday” and “Forest Friday” fieldtrip to SELT’s Burley Farms in Epping, NH. There, they engage in a two to three-hour hands-on lesson that focuses on social and emotional learning as well as New Hampshire’s College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS) and Work Study (WS) practices. Each month’s lesson has a broader theme that aligns with the areas outlined in NH’s CCRS and WS practices and addresses topics like communication, creativity, collaboration, and emotional regulation. Themes such as “Autonomy and Adventure,” where students were given the opportunity to choose between wildlife tracking, cross country skiing or campfire cooking as their activity for the day or “Gratitude and Sense of Place,” when students were tasked with creating their outdoor classroom at Burley Farms using gear from UNH Extension’s Nature Groupie's Stewardship Tool Library or most recently, “Finding [Your] Direction,” where students had to use their five senses as well as their navigational skills to create a treasure hunt for their peers. The balance between standards-based learning and SELT’s essential ingredient in nurturing lifelong land stewardship, “wild play,” is intentional. Lizzy Franceschini, SELT’s Education Program Manager and ATLAS Coordinator and, Kristin Eberl, UNH Extension’s Youth Behavioral Health and Wellness Field Specialist and ATLAS Coordinator, agree that ATLAS provides a space for all students to “choose their challenge,” whether it’s navigating the nuance of being a middle schooler or climbing to the top of the haybale to overthrow a pirate ship, the space is meant to be fluid, fun, and student-led.

Professional Development

A pillar of the program is the school-based ATLAS Team, which is a group of passionate educators and administrators from partnering schools, who meet monthly to provide insight and feedback in the delivery of the nature-based wellness curriculum and serve as an extension of the work happening each month at Burley Farms. They also engage in professional development during these meetings as the ATLAS Coordinators dig into the research supporting the program’s mission, covering topics like “Embracing the Chaos [of wild play]” or “Taking Healthy Risks,” and most recently, “Finding Your Why.” A midyear staff survey indicated that 93% percent of the Epping Middle/High School (EMHS) educators “acknowledge ATLAS as a platform for students to develop essential work-study practices, including self-direction, communication, collaboration, and innovation,” with 88% of them agreeing that “ATLAS offers a supportive environment to observe students' strengths and skills beyond traditional schooling hours.” While the goals of ATLAS are primarily student-centered, it was by design that the educators also be prioritized by providing them space to not only observe their students, but play with them, too. One EMHS educator speaks to their experience with ATLAS, "I enjoy being outside and getting to see the students outside the traditional classroom!”

Lifelong Learning

The partnership with UNH Extension and New Hampshire 4-H provides an evidence-based framework to not only onboard the ATLAS staff as 4-H Volunteer Leaders, but also provides a network of youth-focused supports and resources. Additionally, ATLAS works closely with the University of New Hampshire’s Human Development and Family Studies, Education, and Outdoor Recreation Management and Policy departments to recruit students as part of their practicum and/or internship requirements. Students studying anything from mental health and education to conservation, community development, and experiential learning are encouraged to participate in a semester or year-long internship where they’ll develop skills to enrich their learning and help them reach their graduation and career goals.

ATLAS will also be piloting a Counselor-in-Training model to engage high school students seeking to gain experience in the field of youth programming. The high schoolers will spend a couple of weeks at Camp ATLAS, where they’ll gain knowledge and experience in the areas of teamwork, collaboration, and youth engagement and mentorship. The training model was written to comply with New Hampshire’s Extended Learning Opportunity programs, where students can earn high school graduation credit for community-based work.   

Youth Focused

At the heart of ATLAS is the youth experience by encouraging play; from tree-climbing to campfire cooking, nature provides the ultimate playground with which to explore, challenge, and indulge in one’s thoughts. The space ATLAS holds for youth presents an essential escape from screens and schedules and replaces it with mud and smores, self-reflection, and connection to the land and community. Nature leaves no one behind, whether it’s the cold nudging everyone closer to the campfire or the sunshine warming everything it touches; it gently asks for our presence and in return gives us a sense of place and belonging. As one EMHS 6th grader said about their experience in ATLAS, “I like our campfires, because we stay warm, but I mostly like the stories. You learn a lot about other kids. You learn you have a lot more in common than you thought.”

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Extension Field Specialist, Youth Behavioral Health & Wellne
Phone: (603) 432-5260
Office: Cooperative Extension, Taylor Hall, Durham, NH 03824