The Pine County Board of Commissioners signed a letter of support for a legislative effort to provide Minnesota children more opportunities to be outside during a meeting earlier this month.
The program is called Outdoor School For All Minnesota. It is being championed by organizations like Osprey Wilds in Sandstone. "Minnesota has had a long rich heritage of being connected to the outdoors," Osprey Wilds Executive Director Bryan Wood told WCMP in an interview. "We still do that, but less and less kids are having that access, having that chance."
He said that only about 29% of middle school students in the state have received outdoor educational programs.
Wood said having access to the outdoors is becoming more crucial than ever. According to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, an average Minnesota student spends around seven hours of screen time but less than 10 minutes of outdoor activity each day.
"That connection to nature is not what it use to be, and we want to make sure this experience is available to every student across the State of Minnesota," Wood said.
Outdoor School for All is a bipartisan support bill that would give all Minnesota students between 4th and 8th grade the opportunity to attend an accredited program for free through an appropriation from the state.
Currently, there are five accredited facilities in Minnesota that would meet the criteria to host students for a two-night, three-day experience.
Wood said Outdoor School For All Minnesota would not be a mandate. Instead, it would be a program that schools can opt into.
"It truly is for all students. We want it to be any Minnesota youth - public, private, tribal, home school students - so that the outdoors is truly open and accessible to all students," said Wood.
Legislation for this program is already receiving bi-partisan support going into the 2024 Legislative Session. In the State House, HF 3321 has 34 co-authors including House 11B Rep. Nathan Nelson. Another house bill is anticipated to be introduced in February of 2024 with 34 co-authors.
No firm numbers were given for this program's anticipated cost, but Wood said they hope to receive $25 million for the first year. The goal would be to cover the schools that could get involved right away and grow from there.
During its meeting on Aug. 1, Wood spoke to the Pine County Board to gain support leading into the 2024 session.
"My children and grandchildren have gone to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center," Commissioner Terry Lovgren said. "Watching them go through these things and the challenges they get to do it's amazing what it does to their self-esteem."
The Pine County Board unanimously approved the letter of support during their meeting.