MAINE, Maine — During the pandemic, often the safest place to be was outside. Educators across the state re-focused their emphasis on outdoor education – and now, a new collaboration hopes to continue to support those efforts. Teens to Trails and Maine’s Department of Education are offering seed money to schools across the state to reinvigorate the work they do to get kids outside. Alicia Heyburn, Executive Director of Teens to Trails, and Sarah Woog, of the Maine Department of Education are collaborating on this effort.
"When we get kids outside, first of all in the pandemic landscape, it’s safer, period. We know this. That’s what the science tells us. So it’s a safe way to connect kids. Also getting them outside and getting them moving helps them engage in healthy risk taking, helps them work collaboratively to literally climb a mountain or to cross a river, so it increases the student’s feeling of community and belonging with their peers in a non-competitive environment," says Sarah.
She is the Department of Education Project Director for Waves – an acronym for “Wilderness Activities and Virtual Engagement for Students. Alicia Heyburn leads Teens to Trails, which connects high schools students to life changing outdoor experiences, and helps schools start and sustain outdoor clubs.
"The outdoors is a place of acceptance, it fosters a sense of belonging, and that is the life-long aspect that we hope to engender in the students. It makes me feel so inspired to keep working at this to get the schools to open the doors and get all their kids outside for some aspect of every day," says Alicia.
This effort will be offered statewide, according to Sarah. "Waves is about increasing connections in different ways for teens and adolescents. So looking at how they can safely connect with each other in the outdoors – hence our partnership with Teens to Trails – or also looking at how to connect students virtually across the state."
"The role that Teens to Trails has played is to help schools start and then operate really successful outdoor clubs, but it’s always been a burden on the back of the faculty member or staff member of the school who raised their hand bravely to say “I’ll do more. MORE than my job description, MORE than I’m already giving" which we know is so very much, and often not only their time but their personal expense gets invested in to making this, making outdoor time available for students," says Alicia.
The WAVES initiative aims to provide seed money to schools for outdoor clubs and education. Outdoor education has both short-term and long-term benefits.
"When we open the door, we open minds. If we can just think about how our bodies respond to time outside I feel like, stand up taller. I think there’s a sort of pride and strength, we get literally grounded. Our hearts open. And our eyes are open. And they’re looking farther, right? We have this opportunity for a longer view, like literally, take the long view. See what’s in your future, lean in to your future. As opposed to our screen life, which is often a big and often important part of our life, but it’s very close at hand. And so just thinking about the embodiment of being outdoors, and how that changes us," says Alicia. "But if you think from a teacher’s standpoint, if we have prepared the body, if we have opened the mind, let’s just pour all the education in once we’re open and happy and really ready to learn. What’s wonderful through the WAVES initiative is that Sarah, through the Department of Ed funding is able to pay schools to start these programs. And just that incentive is so strong."
Sarah Woog is the WAVES Project Director. "We’ve fully embraced – as a department – the implications, the meaningful and wonderful implications in all facets of school life. Teens to Trails partnership with WAVES is representative of that perspective that we are hoping to spread throughout the state – and to embrace because schools did it really well this year. I think the outdoors levels the playing field in many ways for diverse populations of students and also between the student and teacher relationship."
Sarah and Alicia thought they’d be successful if they had ten applications – and as of last week when we spoke, they had 43 applications.
"To have the groundswell of educators wanting to increase opportunities for their students, after they have been increasing their capacity in so many different ways for over a year now – it was beautiful, it was inspiring," says Sarah.
The WAVES initiative is already well underway, with schools in 14 of the 16 counties represented. Applications are accepted until the 17th of September. To apply to WAVES, click here. For more information about WAVES, click here. On the 24th of September, Teens to Trails will be working with WAVES to offer an Outdoor Leadership Conference, a professional development day focused on bringing aspects of social and emotional learning in an outdoor setting to their schools. For more information on that, click here.