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All Minn. students could soon be granted free overnight outdoor experiences

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John Latimer with attendees of the Northstar Arts Camp.
Northstar Arts Camp
KAXE Staff Phenologist John Latimer engages children with nature.

Outdoor School For All Minnesota is advocating for the establishment of a statewide grant program to support immersive, multi-day, accredited overnight outdoor education program experiences for students in fourth through eighth grades.

PALISADE — Millions of Minnesotans — likely during their school-age years — have spent time immersed in nature at places like the Long Lake Conservation Center in Palisade and Deep Portage Learning Center in Hackensack.

Despite decades of providing day-trip and overnight programming to youths in the state, these centers reach an average of 30% or less of all Minnesota children, according to an advocacy group seeking to send that number skyward.

Outdoor School For All Minnesota is advocating for the establishment of a statewide grant program to support immersive, multi-day, accredited overnight outdoor education program experiences for students in fourth through eighth grades. It’s a local example of a national movement to increase access to outdoor educational opportunities for all children, no matter income or school district.

“For too many kids, access to the outdoors is determined by race, income, ability, and zip code,” the organization states on its website.

Dave McMillan, the manager of Long Lake Conservation Center, recently joined the KAXE Morning Show to highlight the legislation introduced during the recently ended legislative session in St. Paul. The bill is expected to be considered during the May 2024 supplemental budget session.

McMillan noted a recent study concluded middle schoolers and teenagers have as much as eight hours each day of screen time, not including schoolwork, while spending decreasing amounts of time outdoors — perhaps as little as 10 minutes. Kids are facing anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, and McMillan said he wants to reverse that.

 A headshot of Dave McMillan. He's wearing a white button down shirt, black rimmed glasses and has gray hair and a beard.
Long Lake Conservation Center
Dave McMillan is the manager of Long Lake Conservation Center near Palisade.

“There are plenty of studies out there that suggest that kids that get a chance to be outside, experience nature, connect with it in a meaningful way, have lower rates of mental illness,” he said. “And on top of that, they just do better in school.”

Among visitors to Long Lake each year are several classes from the Twin Cities metropolitan area — many of whom submit phenology reports to KAXE/KBXE to share their seasonal observations. McMillan noted for some of those kids, their time at the facility is their first chance to see creatures rural Minnesotans or those with greater access to nature might take for granted. Take resident porcupine Dill Prickles, for example.

“That's an example of what outdoor schools do. … To be 10 or 15 feet away from a porcupine and literally stare at it eye to eye, and feel that connection, it can really have an impact on people’s lives,” McMillan said. “It can be a life-changing experience for some.”

The experiences available at Long Lake extend beyond catching glimpses of wildlife or what could be seen on a nature documentary, McMillan noted. He pointed to some of the activities children might participate in, depending on the time of year they’re visiting the center.

“Anybody can go online and see a wonderful National Geographic documentary about bogs. It's a totally different thing to walk on one and to reach down and grab a handful of sphagnum moss and drain the water and drink the water and chew on the Labrador leaves,” he said. “So it's that hands-on immersive experience from sunup to sundown.”

“For too many kids, access to the outdoors is determined by race, income, ability, and zip code."
Outdoor School For All Minnesota

Lindsay Bjorklund is the executive director of Deep Portage Learning Center, ascending to that post in 2022 after eight years with the organization. Bjorklund emphasized the importance of time at residential outdoor learning center on multiple levels, including social bonding time with peers and teachers, positive mental health impacts, behavioral improvements and even inspiration for future career paths.

With the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruption and isolation that came with it looming as a backdrop, Bjorklund said now might be a more important time than ever to ensure kids have time to decompress and embrace the wonder of the natural environment around them.

“It's been a challenging time, and especially for students, as they're kind of in their formative years and going through something like the pandemic is a huge impact,” Bjorklund said during an interview in May. “ … This is just, you know, one step to get them kind of in that pathway, where they're taking care of themselves, getting outside, you know, connecting with each other, turning off the phones and (it’s a) great way to learn those skills.”

Bjorklund said the bill has received a positive reception among legislators and others since its introduction.

“Folks are really excited. A lot of positive energy around this, just because I think it's something everyone can get behind,” she said. “We all care about, you know, being outside here in Minnesota. And so everyone's really excited about it.”

Deep Portage executive director talks Outdoor School for All legislation
Lindsay Bjorklund has been with Deep Portage Learning Center near Hackensack since 2014.
 A woman wearing sunglasses on her head with long brown hair in a ponytail smiles. Fall color foliage is behind her and she is wearing a gray T-shirt with "Since 1973 - Deep Portage" writing visible and small Minnesota state outline

Bills are in the works in both the Minnesota Senate and the Minnesota House of Representatives. In the Senate, Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, is the chief author. Other Senate authors include Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, and Sen. Robert Farnsworth, R-Hibbing. In the House, Rep. Kristi Pursell, DFL-Northfield, carried the bill forward and was joined by 34 others, including Rep. Roger Skraba, R-Ely.

Currently, two states — Oregon and Washington — have established Outdoor School for All programs. Oregon’s program was approved by voters in 2017 and utilizes state lottery funds. A permanent program in Washington state became law in 2022. Nine other states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, are in pursuit of legislation.

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Chelsey Perkins spent the first 15 years of her journalism career as a print journalist, primarily as a newspaper reporter and editor. In February 2023, she accepted a role as News Director of KAXE in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where she's building a new local newsroom at the station.
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