The shift to outdoor learning during the pandemic has presented schools with an opportunity to reinvent their classrooms and the lessons they teach. The Maine Environmental Education Association worked to support this opportunity by distributing nearly $200,000 this school year and funding 160 schools across the state in all 16 counties.
According to a press release from the association, teachers are using these tools to educate students about nature, equip them with skills that enable their independence and encourage them to spend more time outdoors.
In the fall of 2020, the association launched the Mini-Grants for Outdoor Learning Program, a program that aims to reallocate funds to support teachers in how they envision outdoor classrooms. As enthusiasm for community-based environmental learning has increased over the past two years, the association has continued to support teachers with these grants.
For the 2021-22 school year, educators received up to $1,500 to support projects in the categories of Outdoor Classroom Solutions, Inclement Weather Gear, Garden/Greenhouse, Outdoor Recreation, Scientific Exploration, Outdoor Art, Curriculum and Professional Development, Snowshoeing and more bird watching. Applicants demonstrated new and creative ways to engage students in the outdoors and shared the diverse positive impacts they have had on their students, from increased school enrollment to academic learning outcomes to improved mental and physical health.
According to MEEA Managing Director Olivia Griset, “At MEEA we are so grateful for the amazing educators who have worked so hard this year to bring their students outside of learning. Research shows that learning outdoors has tremendously positive mental and physical health benefits, as well as academic benefits for teens. We also know that not all young people have access to nature, which is an environmental justice issue. These teachers and projects, conducted in public schools across the state, are helping our youth have positive experiences by gaining a deeper connection to nature in their local community. We are grateful to everyone who donated to make this project possible and to all the amazing teachers for their incredible work.”
This year, teachers have strived to bridge the gap between school funding and the needs of their students. According to MEEA, teachers often undertake incredible projects with limited resources, engaging a variety of students and taking outdoor learning to new heights across the state.
The impact of these projects supports thousands of youth across the state. Supporting teachers and schools in their pursuit of outdoor learning is a critical part of MEEA’s mission as the organization strives to enhance and amplify the efforts of individuals and organizations that build environmental awareness, appreciation and understanding of the environment promote and take action to create equitable and resilient communities.
At TWK Dirigo Middle School in Dixfield, funds were used to buy binoculars, magnifying glasses, soil and water strips, and a greenhouse and gardening and composting supplies.
Oak Hill Middle School in Sabattus used grant money to purchase five picnic tables. After the picnic tables arrived, teachers quickly began using them for rotating classes in an out-of-class setting. This allowed the students to have mask breaks and fresh air.
Lewiston Middle School used MEEA grant funds for seventh grade students to attend the YMCA Outdoor Education Center. Teacher Michelle Deblois said: “At Lewiston Public Schools, many of our students have never set foot outside the urban landscape. This opportunity allowed students to experience the soothing and rejuvenating joys of nature.”
Spruce Mountain Primary School in Livermore used its funds to invest in rainsuits for preschoolers, as rainy days often messed up plans to take students outside. Teacher Tracey Butterfield shared how much students love to learn from nature: “Kindergarten students would go outside in our rain suits to explore shapes in nature, which would go hand in hand with our math unit on shapes. Students were encouraged to collect objects that matched the shapes we were learning.”
The association continues to seek impactful partnerships with local communities and organizations during this changing cultural and environmental climate, as the equitable environmental work created by MEEA plays a key role in building an environmentally conscious Maine—where all people can engage in civic engagement and understand the relationship between their well-being and that of their environment.
MEEA plans to continue this program by opening another application round for the 2022-23 school year this fall. To find out more about this fund, send an email [email protected].
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