About 450 Freeport High School students participated last month in L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Program, held at the company’s Flying Point Paddling Center. Contributed

FREEPORT — With students increasingly immersed in technology, Dede Bennell was pleased to get most Freeport High School students off their screens and into the great outdoors last month for a series of outdoor adventures and team-building exercises.

Each class spent a day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the L.L. Bean Flying Point Paddling Center, part of its Outdoor Discovery Program, during the week of Sept. 10-13. The students had a menu of activities to choose from, such as paddle boarding and geocaching, kayaking out to Lower Goose Island, and visiting Pettengill Farm, according to Bennell, Freeport High’s outreach and service learning coordinator.

The students “absolutely” loved the experience, Bennell said in an interview Oct. 2. “It was a fantastic week and a wonderful kick-off to the new school year.”

The field trip to the Marietta Road center, which overlooks Brickyard Cove, stems from an aspirations partnership Freeport High has had with L.L. Bean since the 1990s. The company would release $15,000-$20,000 to the district, which in turn would use the funds to run a grant program for teachers and staff, a program which Bennell oversaw.

Two years ago, inspired by L.L. Bean’s “Be an Outsider” campaign, which is geared toward getting children outside, Bennell and district Superintendent Becky Foley met with L.L. Bean staff to discuss the funds being used instead to send students to the Outdoor Discovery center.

“We really wanted to get our students outside,” Bennell said. “It’s such a technology-driven culture, so we thought it was really important to provide an alternative learning day where they can unplug, say hello to the natural world, and be with each other in a very different capacity. And then also (to) introduce outdoor recreation to the kids, so they understand that there are these other opportunities.”

While many students are already out and about – given the area’s many natural offerings – “there are some kids who have never been to the ocean, or never do those kinds of things,” she said. “We wanted to help create a way to allow our students to develop and deeper understanding and an appreciation for the natural world. And get them out and physically moving their bodies, to be healthy, and … hopefully planting the seeds about being stewards of the Earth.”

The school doesn’t track obesity rates among its students, Bennell said, but stateofobesity.org reports 14.3% of Maine high school students are obese, a gradual increase from 11.5% in 2011. The rate fluctuated in prior years, from a low of 10.2% in 2001, the earliest tracking date, to a high of 12.7% in 2003. Maine had the 19th highest obesity rate in the U.S. in 2017, with Arkansas being highest at 21.7 percent, the website states.

“We do know that a lot of our kids spend more time plugged in than not,” Bennell said. “There are more couch potatoes, and there’s a lot of processed food, and quick food to get your hands on that’s empty calories.”

About 450 students and around 25 Freeport High staff participated in last month’s session, allowing educators to have a different experience with their students and the opportunity to see the youths demonstrate new strengths.

“The best part of the day for me was getting to know my class better without the school walls holding people back from showing their true colors,” Bennell reported one student saying.

“The best part of the day for me was the ropes/challenge course,” another said. “This built my trust in my peers and made me feel more confident.”

The team-building activities afforded students “a sense of relationship with kids that they might not be able to connect with in the classroom setting,” Steve Custer, program supervisor of L.L.Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Program, said Oct. 3.

The paddling center is open to L.L. Bean’s Discovery School customers, offering paddle board, kayaking and canoeing opportunities along with overnight trips.

“We’re all about getting people outside, and allowing them to live a more meaningful life,” Custer said. “… We have the tools to get people out there; they just need to come and see us.”

Bennell plans to make the week-long adventure an annual experience for Freeport students; she hopes to introduce archery and fly casting next year.

“It’s our hope that we continue our partnership with (L.L. Bean) in this capacity,” Bennell said. “Because we feel like it’s such a great opportunity to get the kids outside.”

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