“What do you like best about our garden?” Debora Thibodeau, guidance counselor at South Bristol School, asked her preschool students as the class prepared for their last harvest of the season on a cool autumn afternoon.
The answers were unanimous. “I love the garden because we get to pick food,” said one student emphatically. “Growing food,” agreed another.
It’s a reasonable answer — especially considering the healthy harvest Thibodeau and her enthusiastic students collected this season. Behind the school, in an array of raised-bed plots, plenty of veggies were still thriving even late in the season; the school chef, Elain Poland, has been incorporating veggies from the plots into her school meals all season, said Thibodeau.
Climbing right into the raised beds, the students reached among the vines for the jewel-toned tomatoes and cucumbers, sharing in excitement over their finds and treading on herbs as they worked, filling the cool air with the sweet smell of basil.
The students were thrilled to be in the garden, and despite Thibodeau’s gentle reminders to pick only red and yellow tomatoes, they sometimes couldn’t help themselves. By the time the garden was cleared, plenty of green tomatoes rolled among the veggies in their buckets.
In a neat line, the students then carried their spoils back inside to the kitchen, where Poland would wash and serve them at lunch the next day.
The gardens at South Bristol School – as well as the nearby beehives humming with pollinators and the rainwater collection system that supplies water for the veggies – are all part of Thibodeau’s vision for the school garden, which she has turned into reality with the help of her enthusiastic students and the support of a series of “mini-grants” from the Maine Environmental Education Association.
Based in Brunswick, Maine Environmental Education Association is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that works with educators throughout Maine to support outdoor education and “build environmental awareness, accountability, and action by centering equity and advancing systemic change,” according to their website.
The mini-grant program first arose in 2020, when the need for financial support to help teachers bring their classes outdoors became apparent, said Maine Environmental Education Association co-director Red Fong.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of schools were trying to get their students outside, because it was the safest way for them to have class,” Fong said. “But unfortunately, a lot of schools didn’t have the resources to get them outside.”
Maine Environmental Education Association, having worked with educators in the state since the early 1980s, was already familiar with local educators and their needs, said Fong. This made the organization uniquely well-suited to redistribute funds in a meaningful, “community-centric and grassroots” way, they said.
Community is at the heart of the mini-grant program, in which Maine Environmental Education Association awards financial support of up to $1,500 to Maine educators for the purchase of any gear, supplies, or support they may require to facilitate outdoor learning in their schools.
Aside from the stipulation that the grants are used for outdoor education, how exactly teachers put their funds to use is loosely defined – and that’s by design, said Fong.
“Teachers are so creative in the ways they use their money,” they said.
This creativity shines through in the range of ways that Lincoln County educators have applied their grant funds. Six schools in Lincoln County received mini-grants during the 2022-2023 cycle, totaling $8,300 among them, said Maine Environmental Education Association Communications Contractor Emory Harger.
Of that total, $1,500 went to Thibodeau this year, who has also used the funds in this and previous seasons to construct an outdoor kitchen, fill learning “go-bags” for students, and to develop an outdoors-focused lending library for her colleagues at the school.
Virginia Thom, a counselor at Dresden Elementary School, used the grant to purchase a set of bird watching equipment, including binoculars, bird and squirrel feeders, and guidebooks. Jessica Hilton, of Great Salt Bay Community School, purchased rain suits for her students “so that when the weather is wet, we can still go outside to learn and play,” she said in a statement.
Becky Hallowell, who teaches fourth grade at Wiscasset Elementary School, used the grant to purchase a collection of mud boots for her students. The boots allow her to more freely take students outside rain or shine to explore the biodiverse and picturesque banks of the nearby Sheepscot River, Hallowell said. But they also function to level the playing field in the classroom by ensuring that no student is excluded from learning for lack of proper footwear, she said.
“There’s no worry now. If they’re coming to school, and they don’t have the right pair of shoes, they just grab a pair of boots,” Hallowell said.
Hallowell added that research – and her own experience – suggests that time outside boosts kids’ ability to learn.
“Learning outside improves students’ academic performance, advances critical thinking skills, and supports their personal growth, confidence, autonomy, and leadership skills,” according to the Maine Environmental Literacy Plan, which the Maine Environmental Education Association helped author.
“Even if they’re going back inside, they focus better after being outside,” Hallowell said. “My goal is to get them outside once a day.”
Having a mud boot collection is one step further towards making that happen for the Wiscasset Elementary students who put the boots to use.
Investment in outdoor education is beneficial for students of all ages, as demonstrated by the projects led by educators Anna Myers and Kaylie Borden O’Brien, of Medomak Valley High School’s alternative program.
This year, Myers and Borden O’Brien used grant funds to develop an innovative, project-based program to study water quality. Using stream tables, plants and grow lights to create model rivers, the students tested water quality and assessed how a factory on the riverbank could impact an environment resembling their own area.
The students in the alternative program also use boots and outdoor gear from a previous mini-grant to help them comfortably go outside, whether they are testing environmental conditions at sites throughout the Medomak Valley or collecting data on growing patterns in the forest behind MVHS to assess the impact of a changing climate on their immediate environment.
“I teach about climate change in a traditional classroom setting too, but having the ability for the kids to get outside and actually connect with nature in the context of climate change is more engaging” and, potentially, more impactful than learning about the environment from within an enclosed classroom, Myers said.
For many students in the alternative program, traditional classrooms were not ideal learning environments. This makes the opportunity to travel outdoors and learn in an unconventional setting all the more valuable, said Myers.
Other grant recipients also noted that time outside allows students to learn and grow in ways that a traditional classroom environment may not facilitate.
“I also use (the garden) as a therapeutic tool,” said Thibodeau. “Kids love talking while they’re digging in the dirt, whether they’ve got something bothering them or if they just want to chat.”
Throughout the program’s three years, Maine Environmental Education Association mini-grants have been awarded to teachers in every Maine county.
“We have some of the most amazing, dedicated, and skilled teachers in Maine who are deeply committed to increasing their students’ health, well-being, and connection to place through outdoor learning initiatives,” said co-Director Olivia Griset.
Maine Environmental Education Association plans to continue investing in Maine educators, said Harger, especially in regions – including Lincoln County – that have historically been underrepresented in the program.
For more information, visit meeassociation.org.