BETHEL — The shift to outdoor learning during the pandemic has offered schools the opportunity to reimagine their classrooms and the lessons they teach. The Maine Environmental Education Association (MEEA) strove to support this opportunity by distributing close to $200,000 this school year, funding 160 schools across the state, in all 16 counties. Teachers are using these funds to teach students about the natural world, provide them with skills that enable their independence, and ensure more time outside.

In the fall of 2020, MEEA opened the first round of applications for the Mini-Grants for Outdoor Learning Program, a program aimed at redistributing funds to give teachers support as they imagined classrooms outside. After this successful fall cycle, MEEA was able to open a spring round of applications with additional funding from generous donors. This spring cycle’s recipients received up to $1,500 to support projects like teaching students bike maintenance, building school gardens, and designing interactive outdoor learning spaces. Recipients of this spring’s grant cycle included Telstar Middle School, Telstar High School, and the Crescent Part Elementary School. The potential impact of these spring grants is hopeful, as applications displayed new and creative ways to engage students in the outdoors and recent reporting from fall recipients illustrates how hundreds of youth across the state have been positively impacted by outdoor learning this school year.

MEEA’s Executive Director, Olivia Griset shared, “At MEEA we are so grateful for the amazing educators who have worked so hard this year to get their students outside learning. Research shows that outdoor learning has hugely positive mental and physical health benefits and also academic benefits for youth. We also know that not all youth have access to the outdoors, which is an environmental justice issue. These teachers and projects happening in public schools across the state are helping to ensure that our youth have positive experiences gaining a deeper connection to nature in their local community. We are grateful to all the individuals who donated to make this project possible and to all the AMAZING teachers for their incredible work.”

This year, teachers stretched to fill the gap between school funding and their students’ needs. Often with limited resources, teachers are accomplishing incredible projects, engaging a variety of students, and bringing outdoor learning to new extents across the state. The impact of these projects supports thousands of youth across the state. Supporting teachers and schools in the pursuit of outdoor learning is a critical piece of MEEA’s mission as the organization strives to enhance and amplify the efforts of individuals and organizations that are building environmental awareness, fostering appreciation and understanding of the environment, and taking action towards creating equitable and resilient communities.

Tanya Aresenault, a teacher at Crescent Park Elementary School, is building a book walk and student artwork display on a nearby nature trail. She shared that, “financial support will help to ensure that the book walk/artwork is displayed in a way that could withstand the weather. Both will be built on the existing nature trail at our school and shared openly with the community. During the school day, the book walk will be accessed by our PK-5 teachers and utilized to teach elements of stories such as setting, character, and problem/solution…By displaying student artwork outside, the trail would also promote the arts and celebrate the work created by our young artists.”

MEEA continues to seek impactful partnerships with local communities and organizations during this changing cultural and environmental climate, as the equity-centered environmental work that MEEA creates plays a key role in building an environmentally literate Maine; where all people can engage civically and understand the relationship between their wellbeing and that of their environment.

MEEA plans to keep this program going by opening another round of applications this upcoming fall. If you or your organization are interested in donating to this fund, please contact [email protected]

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