Outdoor educators pushing for 'No Child Left Inside' funding

Effort could mean millions more for education, and a windfall for nonprofits

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2008

BETHEL, Del. - Canoeing trips on the Chesapeake Bay. Endangered butterfly camps for teachers in Rhode Island. A new corral and barn for a nature center in Texas that wants to show kids live bison.

Outdoor and environmental educators across the nation are ramping up pressure on Congress and their state lawmakers to add funding for nature learning. The effort dubbed "No Child Left Inside" could mean millions more for environmental education - and a major windfall for nonprofits hoping for more federal help getting kids outside.

The resolution, which awaits a vote in the House, would send money to nonprofits and state departments of education for outdoor education aimed at kids who now spend more time in front of computer screens, video games and televisions than playing outside.

"This is so cool," said 12-year-old Emma Osborn, an Annapolis, Md., girl climbing out of a canoe she spent eight hours steering down Broad Creek through rural Delaware.

Osborn is one of a dozen or so kids on a weeklong outdoor camp run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to clean up the nation's largest estuary. Environmental education is a major task of the Foundation, which teaches nature programs to 40,000 kids across three states each year. Highlights of this weeklong camp include night hikes, setting up tents and campfires and learning to read topographical maps and navigate canoes.

"I've never seen that many stars in my life," Osborn said, recounting her favorite event, the night hike.

Environmental activism groups say nature learning is crucial amid alarming rates of childhood obesity and a growing concern about the health of the outdoors.

"You're seeing a disconnection from the natural world," said Don Baugh, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's vice president for education. "And you're also seeing a lot of health issues from kids not building a fort out back or playing on the stoop and their neighborhood."

Those worries are getting politicians' attention.

"I think it's responding to a number of anxieties out there," especially childhood obesity and the environment, said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., lead sponsor of the "No Child Left Inside" bill. "The next generation is the one that's going to make or break us as a planet."

Sarbanes hopes that when Congress revisits the No Child Left Behind law next year, they'll revise it to include some $500 million over five years for outdoor education. Though Sarbanes is a freshman lawmaker, and he concedes there's not much time left before Congress' terms ends to steer the resolution through to passage, he said he's optimistic his proposal will clear at the least the House before returning next term.

As Congress weighs Sarbanes' proposal, many states aren't waiting, even as declining tax revenues in most states mean less money for new programs. New environmental literacy requirements are pending from Maryland to Oregon. The plans could mean a boost for groups offering outdoor education already through a patchwork of grants and private donations.

"Not one person I've ever talked to doesn't think this is a good idea," said Shareen Knowlton, director of education at the Roger Williams Zoo and Park in Providence, R.I. Knowlton runs weeklong teacher training courses on American burying beetles and wants to start a new program studying the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly - "but the funding isn't there," she said.

At the Sibley Nature Center, a 49-acre nature preserve in west Texas, executive director Burr Williams has two nature teachers but wants to hire more, and build a corral and barn to hold live animals. He says the "No Child Left Inside" push is the result of years of pressure from outdoor educators to bring back the classic field trip.

"This is really a product of thousands of educators pushing Congress to get at it," Williams said. "You're sitting at a desk in rows, you're engaging a couple of your senses. If you go outside, you engage all your senses."

In New Mexico, where lawmakers two years ago set aside money to send more schoolchildren to state parks, the fund was increased from $250,000 to $400,000 after only one year.

"It's so important to look at the education of the child in terms of the environment," said state Sen. Cynthia Nava, sponsor of that state's Outdoor Classroom Initiative and a school superintendent in southern New Mexico.

Parks officials are pushing for nature education, too. In Maryland, where Gov. Martin O'Malley issued an executive order earlier this year pushing for more outdoors education, parks managers plan to start work later this month on new nature teaching programs.

"We've got this growing crisis on our hands where we've got these kids magnetized to the computer," said John Griffin, head of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, which manages state parks. "This idea is really catching fire all over the country. ... We want our parks to be not just parks but learning laboratories for kids."

The potential for more funding has outdoor educators e-mailing Congress and crossing their fingers for money to expand.

"I would love to offer more programs," said Katie Girvin, curator for education at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida, which started its first day camps this summer.

"Kids are lacking the time outside. Kids come to summer camp, and they get a little free time outside to play, and they don't know how to do it anymore."

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