LEWISTON — Snowshoeing, installing bear cameras and releasing salmon fry into local watersheds are a few activities Maine Environmental Education Association has helped make possible for Androscoggin County students through its grant to teachers and educators.

For the past three years the association has awarded numerous mini-grants to teachers, with $483,651 raised from private, nongovernmental philanthropic organizations going toward the program that serves teachers in schools all over Maine, according to Director of School and Community Partners Anna Sommo.

“I think we’re lucky in Maine that we have a lot of support for outdoor learning and we’re not the only ones who are providing this support, but I think our belief is that all students deserve the opportunity to learn outside the classroom and for so many students outdoor learning is a chance to feel more confident to try new things,” she said.

The grants, up to $1,500 each, help educators who want to take their students outside to do environmental education but need extra support to do so, she said. Many of those barriers can be overcome with a little funding to purchase supplies such as binoculars, garden supplies, snowshoes and many other items.

Though Maine has an abundance of spaces such as woods, beaches and other natural environments, not all children have access to explore them, she said. Some do not have even the basic outdoor clothing items required to participate in many outdoor activities.

Eliza Guion, an AmeriCorps service member assigned to St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, helped run nutrition programing at Thomas J. McMahon Elementary School and Robert V. Connors Elementary School last school year. She was awarded $1,500 for the McMahon garden program.

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With that money, the school bought materials to build an outdoor garden shed to store supplies, which helps support teachers wanting to incorporate the garden into their curriculum, Guion said. It takes a lot of energy for teachers to organize educational opportunities and having the necessary supplies is one less factor they have to worry about.

“With the shed, that’s a really important thing outside, in the outdoor classroom space, just for storing all those curriculum materials makes it so much easier for a teacher to feel comfortable using an outdoor learning space,” she said.

Guion also used some of the money to buy lights for a hydroponic grow system that was donated to the school, she said. Without those lights they would not be able to use the system year-round. It was placed in the school’s science, technology, engineering and math classroom where it lit up the classroom and students in every grade had a chance to be involved with it.

If not for the association’s funding, the school would not have been able to fund either of these initiatives, she said.

Teachers have a lot on their plates, so ensuring extra support can make it possible for them to take students outside, which helps children retain information in other ways outside a traditional classroom setting, she said.

Students were able to make observations and hypotheses using the hydroponic growing system, kindergarteners were able to hand-pollinate strawberry plants and multilingual students were able to better understand what was being taught when more of an emphasis was placed on visual and tactile learning activities, she said.

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Student engagement and attention seems to increase during outdoor learning, along with the social and emotional benefits, having an overall positive impact on a student’s education experience, according to Sommo.

“Having the opportunity to be with your classmates and be with your teacher in a different setting and, sort of, just being in a different environment can really have a positive impact on a lot of people,” she said.

Teachers are at the forefront of this type of environmental education work, which is why the association makes its grants available to educators in schools, she said. The program was started during the pandemic when the need for outdoor education skyrocketed.

A lot of people have started to realize the success and benefits of outdoor education, she said. Last year, the organization received about 120 applications for grants, this year it has received 160.

The whole community, including parents, neighbors, school administrators and community partners, needs to support outdoor learning for it to be a success, Guion said. She recommends people reach out to schools to find out how they can support some of these initiatives.

“It really just takes a village, so wherever folks are in that village, just see what can be done, how they can lend a hand,” she said. “… It can be hard to prioritize something that seems kind of superfluous, like garden education, but (she is) really making it clear that this is something that’s really valuable to our students learning.”

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