WATERVILLE — Schools from all over the state submitted proposals to the Maine Environmental Education Association ’s Mini-Grant for Outdoor Learning Program. The program started with only $30K to give away, but through some great network support, the association received an additional $70K to distribute to schools, according to a news release from the association.

Teachers at Hall-Dale Elementary School in Hallowell, Messalonskee High School in Oakland, Madison Elementary School, Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, Monmouth Memorial School, Skowhegan Area High School, Windsor Elementary School and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley are recipients of this grant, receiving between $600 to $1,500 to support their projects.

Teachers this year are stretched incredibly thin because of the restrictions COVID-19 has placed on their classrooms. Fortunately enough, outdoor classrooms provide a break from masks and virtual classes, allowing students to get some fresh air and give their eyes a break from screens. To get students outside, teachers often need extra support to meet pandemic regulations and have successful classes. MEEA hopes that the funding from this program will be able to do exactly that by helping fill the gap between teachers’ plans for outdoor learning and the budget they have available

The funds from this grant were able to be distributed across the state, supporting schools in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Franklin, Hancock, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Oxford, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Sagadahoc, Somerset, Waldo and Washington counties. Individuals teaching at a variety of grade levels applied, achieving a spread of applications from high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. The teachers that applied are doing incredible things for their students and filling these students’ needs wherever they can. As Maine moves into winter, teachers are recognizing that their students need winter clothing to continue spending time outside. This trend was evident in the applications, as over 30% of teachers sought to use this money to outfit students, knowing that their students might not be able to acquire suitable clothing to continue learning outside.

Caroline Karnes, an outdoor education coordinator at Hall-Dale Elementary School,  said, “started the [outdoor learning] program with our kids’ kindergarten classes and have slowly expanded it to include weekly outdoor ed for all K and 1st-grade classes along with weekly or occasional lessons with many other grades, depending on what teachers request. We have two outdoor classroom spaces, trails, a garden, and a small orchard. During one of the workshop days in August, the principal invited us to do a half-day outdoor ed training to allow the teachers to experience the outdoor spaces, learn about classroom management, and collaborate on how they could best use the spaces. Even as COVID-19 has presented many challenges for schools, it has also meant teachers were both invited and required to spend more time outside. We have loved seeing students exploring every corner of the school property as teachers take advantage of the outdoor classrooms, the garden, and the trails we have developed over the years. The MEEA grant money will allow us to maintain these spaces and provide resources so that teachers can continue to keep students outdoors through the winter and, hopefully, integrate outdoor education into their teaching practices after COVID restrictions are gone.”

Jennifer Swain, a kindergarten teacher at Madison Elementary School, has been a driving force in the development of Madison Elementary School’s nature center. In receiving this funding Swain said, “We are truly thrilled and honored to receive this grant. We are so very fortunate to have this partnership with the Maine Environmental Education Association. The grant allows us to meet certain goals much sooner than we anticipated thus benefitting more students. Our nature learning center is very popular with our students. It allows our students to see their natural surroundings through a different lens. They can put all their senses to work as they make discoveries that foster analysis and questions. It’s a pretty powerful learning environment; one which is worth the investment,” according to the release.

Amanda Rippa, a science teacher at Messalonskee Middle School said, “I’m excited to have been awarded the MEEA Outdoor learning grant because it supports how I had been teaching prior to the pandemic, learning and exploring outside the walls of our school, with new equipment to do so! We can enhance our nature observations with a class set of binoculars to catalog species, their characteristics and behaviors. I am also very excited to use the uHandy mobile microscopes with my middle schoolers to see microorganisms in our school pond and help us to better understand the ecosystem and the water quality. Science concepts and connecting with nature is much more real when it’s done outside, and in our current state I want to provide my students with stress-free, engaging, ways to learn,” according to the release.

Judy Macomber, a teacher at Monmouth Memorial School, added, “This grant makes it possible for our young learners here at Monmouth Memorial School to play and learn outside regardless of the weather. I am a first-grade teacher who has, in the past few years, witnessed the physical, academic, and social growth cultivated by outdoor classrooms. When faced with the challenges brought about by COVID, I am more determined to keep kids outside for learning, and the grant will provide rain gear for students to play out in any type of weather while here at school. It is exciting to think of future opportunities to bring kids and learning together outdoors in any weather.”

Maggie Blumenthal, a teacher at Windsor Elementary will be using the funds to create an outdoor learning space, they’ve already used some of their funds to level a location. She added, “We contracted a local business to get 3 yards of stone dust and then contracted another local contractor to grade out space and complete the gravel pad! It took about two hours even with the snow!” She continued, “We are very excited to start our search for some picnic tables. Our students won’t be able to use this space until spring planting but it’s incredibly exciting to have our students see the whole process.”

Jenn Sanborn, a teacher at the Maine Academy of Natural Science said, “We applied for and received approval for a grant from the Maine Environmental Education Association to buy equipment for use at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. I am so excited that we will now be able to purchase soil augers and other soil testing equipment so that our students can have a hands-on experience learning about our Maine soils. Most students learn best when they can immerse themselves in a learning experience. This grant will help us to give students that hands-on piece that they might otherwise not get the chance to experience,” according to the release.

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. 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.