Supporting teachers and schools in the pursuit of outdoor learning

Searsport, Hope, Camden-Rockport elementary schools awarded Outdoor Learning grants

Mon, 12/14/2020 - 1:15pm

Teachers at Searsport Elementary, Hope Elementary, and Camden Rockport Elementary schools are recipients of Mini-Grants for Outdoor Learning Program, by the Maine Environmental Education Association (MEEA). 

The teachers will receive fully funded grants of $1,500 to support their outdoor learning projects, which can vary from projects like building picnic benches for classrooms, creating mud kitchens for young kids, outdoor learning curriculum development, and purchasing foul-weather gear.

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

The funds from this grant were 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,” said MEEA. 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.

“We are so appreciative to receive the MEEA grant as we work to build an outdoor space and program for the students of Camden Rockport Elementary,” said Katie Bauer, assistant principal at Camden Rockport Elementary. “COVID-19 has accelerated the need for being outdoors for health reasons, but we know that time spent outside is so important for healthy child development.”

These funds will help CRE continue its professional development work with Dr. Jennifer Page from the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership, as well as build a resource library and a collection of trail maintenance tools. The 4th-grade team is leading the outdoor initiative and a group of 4th graders will help decide what tools and resources to purchase. With the help of Coastal Mountain Land Trust volunteers, student planning, and energy, the wooded area behind our school is being transformed into lovely outdoor spaces for learning and exploration, according to Bauer.

One of the 4th graders at CRE, Daniel Schenk, said: “I like the stream which is really fun with the flowing water and there are no loud noises like lockers slamming. It is really soft. I like that we can enjoy the fresh air because if we are over 6 feet away we can take our masks off and it is really peaceful.”

Sarah Koelbl, a teacher at Searsport Elementary said, “I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to offer hands-on nature materials to each child, k-5, to support our very digital learning experience. In a time where many people are finding solace in turning inward and getting reacquainted with the natural world around them, it brings me great joy to share my love of nature with my remote students, as well as spark their curiosity for the world around them, that will, hopefully, last a lifetime!”

Sarah Schrader at Hope Elementary School has been engaging her students in some great projects, prompting questions like, “Many local animals survive the Maine winters outside...what can we stand to learn from them?

First and second-grade Multi-Age students have been experimenting with concepts such as water-proof vs. water-resistant, cotton vs. wool and rubber vs. insulated and learning how winter gear is modeled after animal adaptations (ex., guard hairs, downy feathers, feather structure, preening oils). These children are captivated by and invested in this integrated learning about the how and why of winter gear and what is needed to stay
warm and dry on cold (or wet/sloppy) winter days, according to Schrader. They are taking it seriously and ready to teach other.

This MEEA grant will help fund a library of winter gear for Hope’s Multi-Age class like winter boots, wool socks, wool base layers and wool buffs that children will keep and use at school.

“We have already been spending the majority of our day learning outside, and this way ALL children have what they need, everyday, to continue learning outside even through winter,” said Schrader.

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.

“Teachers this year are stretched incredibly thin due to the restrictions COVID-19 has placed on their classrooms,” said MEEA. “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.”

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.