Comment: School outdoor programs should be available to all Maine students

Have you ever heard someone remember that “When I was a kid, we used to go out after breakfast and not come home until dinner time”? Being outside with your friends was what being a kid was all about. Perhaps you are that kid and know firsthand how magical it is to be free to explore and play in the woods, fields, mountains, ponds, rivers and coast of Maine.

But kids who get out in nature face a lot of competition today — from screen time to school to extracurricular activities and beyond. However, the importance of natural resources in Maine remains the same. Our children deserve the opportunity to learn, grow, and connect with Maine’s outdoor heritage, which is why we are following Oregon and Washington in sponsoring a bipartisan bill in this legislative session to create and fund a program to bring school outdoors to all students in Maine.

Outdoor School programs are one-day field trips for students and classroom teachers that combine environmental science, sustainability, team building, and nature-based education. For example, the UMaine Cooperative Extension already operates four Learning Centers in partnership with local school districts in Maine to provide immersive, curriculum-related outdoor learning opportunities.

Currently, less than 25% of Maine students participate in outside school programs. These programs are currently funded by a combination of private funding from foundations, school fundraisers, and additional scholarship funds provided by Out School Centers. The goal of LD 1817 is to ensure fair access to everyone Maine students by removing barriers to funding outside schools and allowing grant funding to be distributed.

LD 1817 will create a three-year special fund that will provide $6.2 million annually for the period 2023-2025. Under the All Maine Outdoor School Program, schools will select a grade between fourth and eighth, and all students in that grade, regardless of income, will have the opportunity to participate in a three-day, two-night immersive outdoor school program. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension will administer the program, offering grants to schools to work with an impressive network of external school program providers. Through these outdoor school programs, students will be able to live and learn together, experience the benefits of Maine’s beautiful outdoors, and get inspired about potential career paths in agriculture, forestry, conservation, and environmental careers in STEM fields.

In 2019, a study by the Journal of the American Pediatric Medical Association found that Maine has one of the highest percentages of mental health problems for children in the United States. The effects of COVID-19 have made things worse. All Maine children will gain emotional benefits from spending more time outside, and outdoor schools help boost a child’s self-esteem by providing opportunities to gain leadership skills and become more self-sufficient. Children who participate in these programs are more connected to Maine’s heritage of the great outdoors.

External schools also support classroom teachers and school systems. External school programs work closely with their Maine school partners before and after multi-day night programs to incorporate learning goals. We have seen teachers’ relationships with their students grow after outdoor school programmes. We’ve had students and teachers struggling to build relationships in the classroom completely change course after an outdoor school program because together they dealt with new challenges being outdoors can present but a traditional classroom can’t.

Finally, we know that our communities benefit from outdoor school programs and benefit workforce development. Outdoor school programs introduce students to professions based on natural resources such as technical jobs in agriculture, fishing, and forestry. These industries need a skilled workforce, and introducing these jobs to kids in middle school helps them envision an exciting future career path in the fields, woods, and waters of Maine.

In fact, states that have implemented statewide outdoor school programs have already seen elementary and upper-middle school students who participate in outside school programs have a continuing interest in outdoor and environmental education, and have sought high school internships to teach in outside school programs. And this is about more than just future employment: LD 1817 will have a huge impact on full-time job opportunities for people across Maine right now.

Our children deserve the opportunity to build a stronger and lasting relationship with the outdoors. We think LD 1817 is a great way to help achieve this goal for Maine.

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