With the 2021-22 academic year right around the corner, Maine school districts are searching for healthy ways for their students to return to school. One opportunity schools have embraced is a new partnership with Teens to Trails and the Maine Department of Education.

The initiative, Wilderness Activities and Virtual Engagement for Students (WAVES), is designed to encourage physical and mental well-being by participating in group outdoor activities through the creation of school outdoor clubs. Seed money for these clubs is offered by WAVES to Maine schools serving teens.

Almost 50 middle and high schools throughout the state have applied for the program. The application is meant to be easy, to reduce barriers to getting youth connected to the outdoors. Maine DOE provides the money, schools identify an adult leader, and Teens to Trails provides year round training and program support.

In Kennebec County, Gardiner Area High School, Winthrop High School, Cony High School in Augusta, Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville, and Maranacook Community High School in Readfield were given awards. In Somerset County, Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley, Carrabec Community School in North Anson, Lawrence High School in Fairfield and Skowhegan Area High School were also awarded money.

Each school was awarded $500-$1,500, dependent on needs. In many cases, schools were in search of financial support for transportation and outdoor gear or to help pay a stipend for club leaders. Edward Van Tassel, a health and education teacher at Winthrop High School, said that with the funds available to help get their outdoor club leader secured, his school can be better equipped to manage transportation costs.

Studies have shown that spending time outside is critical for teenage development, as it fosters the need to care for themselves, others and the planet. Spending time outside also creates a healthy mind/body balance and improves focus throughout the day. When teenagers enjoy open spaces, it helps to create open minds that are ripe for learning.

Further research has proven that teenagers who take part in outdoor programs develop lifelong connections to natural spaces in their communities, while also learning teamwork and problem-solving skills that they can take into adulthood. Outdoor clubs create an opportunity for inclusive, non-performance based experiences that break down social barriers and build long-term habits of wellness.

All of the schools hope to create successful outdoor clubs for their teenage students. Sharon Gallant, a science teacher at Gardiner Area High School hopes that she can make outdoor club part of the school curriculum, so that students can participate for credit.

“This would engage students that otherwise might not have the time or the opportunity to learn how much fun the great outdoors really is,” Gallant said, according to a news release from Teens to Trails.

Funding applications are accepted until Friday, Sept. 17. To apply to the program or learn more, visit teenstotrails.org/waves.