Missouri Environmental Education News: May 2021

Welcome to the lastest edition of MEEA's Newsletter
Lesli Moylan Photo

Table of Contents

  • Lesson Resources
  • Feature Article
  • Kudos
  • Upcoming Events, Workshops & Grants
  • MEEA News Highlights

Dear MEEA Members,

I write to you not knowing how many of you are back doing in-person things all the time, and how many of you may just be starting to feel the shift back to face-to-face gatherings. Either way, I wish you peace after the wild ride of this past school year. I hope your summer brings plenty of whatever you need to rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit. 

The Sustainability Institute for Educators resumes virtually on June 14 and 15,  and I am so excited! We have two inspiring and info-packed mornings planned and would love you to join us. Sharon Deem of the St. Louis Zoo will start us off on Monday reflecting on the theme of OneHealth and the interconnection between the health of people, animals, and places. Rosanna Ayers, Director of Youth Education at the Biomimicry Institute will close us out on Tuesday with stories and resources to support mimicing nature’s strategies with learners of all ages. In between the keynote and capstone presentations, other amazing educators (including several MEEA members!) will share their strategies for integrating health and sustainability into their everyday teaching. Whether you are a formal or informal teacher, we hope to provide you with a just-right dose of new ideas and stimulating conversations to reflect on over the summer. Spread the love and share this flyer with your friends!

Until next time, 

Lesli Moylan, Executive Director

Mud, Sticks & Stones: Nature Play Foundations


Laura Seger, MEEA Board Member and Manager of Learning Experiences at the St. Louis Zoo

Photos by: Laura Seger

Puddle stomping, tree climbing and rock collecting; traditional children’s pastimes that have gone by the wayside in recent years. There was a time when the majority of children’s play took place outdoors and was unstructured. That is no longer the case for many children. Fortunately, as educators we have the power to help change that. By moving teaching of all kinds outside whenever possible, and advocating for the benefits of nature play to school administrators and parents.

Why encourage more time in nature? Well, benefits abound in all areas of child development. In the cognitive realm we know time outdoors increases retention, concentration and short term memory. It has also been found to increase creativity and analytical thinking skills. In terms of physical development, it helps with vision, reduces blood pressure and increases serotonin and dopamine levels that positively impact mood. Social and emotional development also benefit, with increases in collaboration, conflict resolution and cooperation. Likewise, empathy, sense of place and agency are increased with time spent in nature. This extensive list doesn’t even touch on the reason many of us became interested in environmental education. For most it’s creating a connection to nature that ideally leads to pro-environmental behaviors and a conservation ethic.

Why through play? Well, benefits exist in all developmental areas of play as well. Play helps hone decision making skills, enhances learning readiness, learning behaviors and problem solving skills, all important cognitive benefits. Play encourages physical engagement and activity, helping with obesity concerns, improves coordination, and helps with physical risk assessment. At its core play is a social and emotional activity. Play increases creativity, develops imagination, and enhances confidence and resilience. It also develops negotiation and self-advocacy skills and opportunities to learn from and with others. Unstructured play is particularly important and has unfortunately decreased, as fears of letting children explore their neighborhoods, and the need for afterschool care have risen. At the same time recesses have gotten shorter and electives that provide similar creative outlets fewer. Children lack the necessary opportunity for undirected play, instead coaches, educators and caregivers determine what kind of play will happen and how. Decreasing the inherent benefits.

Providing and encouraging nature play opportunities merges all of these wonderful benefits. To begin, remember that an adult’s role is to stay back and allow exploration to happen. As environmental educators it can be tempting to narrate children’s discoveries and attempt to direct exploration so they don’t miss anything. Instead, step back and behold the magic. Providing a few simple guidelines is best. They might include: staying at a distance where you can still hear, and or see a teacher, respecting the natural world, and using natural materials safely. If you go in with a list of what not-to-do’s, they will just find creative work-a-rounds. Instead, start off with a level of mutual respect, and you can always kindly redirect the occasional guideline infraction.

Nature play can look like many things, and is valuable to children of all ages. It does not require specific equipment or tools, and can be done anywhere. Providing access to any of the following types of activities provides value. Mud and dirt play can include a mud pit, or a tub or top soil and some sticks. For nature art, any and all natural materials are usable, even simple dandelions can make beautiful creations, along with rocks, sticks, shells, seed heads and more. Temporary works of art are fine, and the materials can be used over and over. When space and materials allow, fort building is a great STEM nature activity, with natural materials like logs and downed branches, or upcycled materials like wood and PVC scraps and old tarps. The list goes on and on, are there rocks and logs to balance on? Let them, no need to create a game, they will. Is there a water sources? Simply monitor for safety.

Encourage students to be scientists as they explore. What can they observe? What can they test? Concerned that learning might not be happening? Ask them to tell you about their creation, test, or exploration. Along with sharing nature experiences with a trusted person, spending time in unstructured nature play continues to be a strong positive indicator of ongoing connection to nature.

Want Some More Help Getting Started?

Find MEEA’s Nature Play Exploration Kit HERE


Kudos to Climate Action KC for the completion of the KC Climate Action Plan to get the KC Region to Net Zero by 2050. Kansas City environmental educators are doing some amazing things to build bridges between high school students and city leadership in support of the plan. Join our Virtual Monthly Event in July to learn more and be inspired. Stay tuned for details!

Kudos to Parkway School District! They received the 2021 EPA Energy Star Partner of the Year award last month! PSD is the first school to receive this award. Parkway Sustainability Coordinators have been an active part of the green school ecosystem in Missouri for years, and are a great example of the snowballing results from sustained effort over time. Parkway has reduced energy use 48% and avoided over $11 million in energy costs since 2010. If you want to be like Parkway, remember–you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Kudos to Juliana Urtubey, named the National Teacher of the Year this year, who began her green schools journey years ago through school gardening. Urturbey champions nature-based learning and inclusivity at her school. She’s a first generation immigrant teaching lots of bilingual kids, and she is super intentional about the curriculum and culture of her classroom being welcoming. How cool that she is recognized at this level, and that we get to learn from her!

Kudos to Britt Tate Beaugard for receiving the 2021 “What’s Right with the Region” award by FOCUS St. Louis. Britt is an art teacher at Bryan Hill Elementary, a Missouri Green Schools enrollee and a Green Schools Quest school. Britt has been hard at work during the pandemic creating a colorful and inspiring outdoor learning space, engaging kids and the community alike! Thanks to a donation from an anonymous MEEA member, Bryan Hill will be able to purchase native plants for the outdoor classroom this summer! Kudos to anonymous donors making the world a better place!



June 10, 4-5 PM: Relax and de-stress with KACEE, MEEA, and YogaBuzz Friends (virtual)


Featured Grant: MDC’s Community Conservation Funding Opportunities


Featured PD: Secret Lives of Stuff, June 8-July 13

Register by June 4



Missouri Green Schools Partner Network

We held our fourth meeting to develop the Missouri Green Schools Partner Network on May 13, with about 40 people in attendance from across the state. This was the last of the MELAB meetings focused on the Partner Network Development. Check out where four statewide conversations have led us over the last couple years, and mark your calendars for February 10–the next statewide convening of the MGS Partner Network!