China Primary School kindergarten students use magnifying glasses during outdoor learning at their school. Submitted photo

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 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, the association started the Mini-Grants for Outdoor Learning 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, it 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, 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, according to a news release from the association.

According to MEEA’s Executive Director Olivia Griset, “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.”

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 the association’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.

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At Cony Middle/High School, teacher Brenda Weis used her grant funds to first purchase a pop up tent as well as bicycle repair parts for several donated bicycles, a bike stand, bike pump, and several bicycle tools. She also purchased 10 camp seat cushions as well as clipboards to add to an already existing stock — enough for a class of 25 students. In addition she bought Sibley’s Backyard Birds of the Northeast Folding Field Guides along with binoculars and a Cornell Lab of Ornithology online course, “Let’s Go Outside! How to Connect Kids with Birds and Nature,” that she will complete this summer. Finally, she bought storage totes in which to store these materials.

The Palermo Consolidated School used their grant to improve the trail system around the school.

At Richmond Middle/High School the grant funds were used to purchase 12 razor scooters in order to supplement an existing bicycle program. The need was identified to get students who could not yet ride a bike experiencing moving on two wheels.

The rain boots were another important tool funded by the Maine Environmental Education Association for children at China Primary School. Submitted photo

Kristen Bullard at China Primary School used her funds to purchase “explorer bags,” binoculars, magnifying glasses and field books to create meaningful outdoor learning experiences for her kindergarten students. Rain boots were another important tool funded through the grant.

Teacher Sharon Gallant from Gardiner Area High School purchased 46 camp or bag chairs, two easels, 50 magnetic white clipboards, and 50 markers with erasers to write on the boards. She also bought two rolling carts to store all of the materials and two monthly calendar boards that are mounted on the wall for teachers to use to sign up and reserve the chairs for their class period.

At Albion Elementary School’s KVCAP Pre-K program, cedar blocks were purchased with grant funds to add a natural element to the playground and encourage development of gross motor skills.

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At Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland the grant was used to purchase ice fishing gear to support science classes; Heritage tip-up traps, two pack baskets, four ice skimmers, two jig poles, one bait bucket, lures, line, hooks, sinkers, swivels and bait for two ice fishing days. They also purchased lumber, metal, tape, and other materials for students to make their own “perch traps.” Additionally, they purchased a GoPro to be able to see fish under the ice.

At Madison Elementary School the grant award funded the purchase of materials to allow for extended use of the outdoor classroom area and woods trail. Winter boots and warm socks were purchased for winter use and mud boots and tall white socks for spring/fall use.

Canaan School purchased rain suits, boots, and water play/study materials with grant funds. Students were able to study worms, measure rainfall, test out different ways to make the biggest splash, and observe nature in the rain.

North Elementary School in Skowhegan used its funds to start an outdoor classroom, including a mud kitchen.

Clinton Elementary School improved its playground by purchasing two large tunnels, six sets of binoculars, two sets of sensory stepping stones and a set of Let’s Get Moving activity cards.

Teachers at Fairfield Primary School and Somerset Elementary School in Hartland were awarded MEEA Mini-Grant funds to support new infrastructure at their schools to support outdoor learning.

MEEA plans to keep this program going by opening another round of applications this upcoming fall for the 2022-2023 school year. Those interested in donating to this fund can email [email protected]. For more information, visit meeassociation.org.

A group of China Primary School kindergarten students head out for an outdoor learning experience. Submitted photo

 

 

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