Oxford Elementary School rain gear

STATE — 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 started the Mini-Grants for Outdoor Learning Program, a program aimed at redistributing funds to give teachers support as they imagined classrooms outside. As enthusiasm for community-based environmental learning has increased over the past two years, MEEA has continued to support teachers with these grants.

For the 2021-2022 school year, educators received up to $1,500 to support projects in the categories of Outdoor Classroom Solutions, Foul-Weather Gear, Garden/Greenhouse, Outdoor Recreation, Science Exploration, Art Outdoors, Curriculum, and Professional Development, Snowshoes, and Birding. Applicants displayed new and creative ways to engage students in the outdoors and reported on the wide range of positive impacts to their students, from increased school attendance to academic learning outcomes to improved mental and physical health.

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 toward creating equitable and resilient communities.

At Roberts Farm in RSU 17, the funds helped expand the outdoor gear available to loan to students when they come to visit. Purchasing a class set of rain gear has made outdoor experiences in rainy weather more of a possibility. In addition, funds were put toward a class set of Crazy Creek chairs to ensure students can sit comfortably outdoors. In reflecting on the school year experiences at Roberts Farm, teachers commented, ‘I love that they are given a chance to learn in a non-traditional setting… Kids don’t realize they’re even learning, or how much they’re learning, because we get to be out of the four walls of a classroom!’”

At Agnes Gray Elementary school grant funds purchased 20 nylon hammocks for the creation of two Reading Groves. Students helped to clear out the spaces in the forest and hung up the hammocks, after establishing protocol for care of the new shared spaces. Outdoor Learning Coordinator Sarah Timm reports, “Our kids’ faces change completely when they leave their seats and get outside; they are transformed into excited, active learners. They seek out experiences to learn and explore. They are better regulated and more engaged.

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 well-being and that of their environment.

MEEA plans to keep this program going by opening another round of applications this upcoming fall for the 2022-2023 school year. If you or your organization are interested in donating to this fund, please contact [email protected]!

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