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GETTING THE KIDS OUTSIDE: Oregon Shares the Secret to Outdoor Education for All

About the Author

Rex Burkholder founded two successful Portland nonprofit organizations-the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and the Coalition for a Livable Future. Elected to the Metro Council he served three terms. His book, The Activist’s Toolkit (2015), is highly praised for its creative approach to leadership, helping many around the world be more effective community activists. He blogs about transportation, urban livability and climate change at www.gettingto2100.org. As a volunteer, Rex founded the Oregon Outdoor Education Coalition in 2014 and led the successful campaign to dedicate $22 million annually for Outdoor School statewide in Oregon.

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Screen grab from the Outdoor School for All website

Among the many threats to our future, one of the most serious is our citizenry’s declining awareness of our natural world and how it works.  How can we expect young people to care about this amazing world without a chance to experience and learn about the world they live in?

By getting muddy, by analyzing water quality, by measuring the height and carbon content of trees. In the famous words of Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Our ability to solve present and future environmental crises, such as changing climate, the loss of plant and animal species, food insecurity, water resource depletion and soil degradation, all depend upon immersing our children in nature and giving them the tools to understand the forces that govern this planet.

Today, kids spend an average of seven hours plus daily in front of a screen and less time outside than ever before. That’s a significant problem because kids who grow up without a connection to the natural world are less likely to be passionate about conservation in their own lives, less likely to support policies that enhance sustainable communities and less likely to vote for pro-conservation leaders. We are losing the battles between distraction and engagement, between consumerism and stewardship, between cynicism and healthy, scientific skepticism.

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Yet hope is not lost. We can inspire and motivate young people— and we’ve seen it happen in Oregon.

This past November, Oregon voters passed a statewide funding measure, making Oregon the first state in the nation to guarantee a full week of Outdoor School–this is hands-on, field science for all middle-schoolers statewide. Save Outdoor School for All (Measure 99) is a landmark decision for many reasons, with wide-ranging and precedent-setting implications for environmental and social justice groups throughout the country.  Because we want to see every state with an Outdoor School, we’ve created a case study so you can read how we did it.  And you can do it, too!

Our experience in Oregon gives us hope for the future.

To share our success with other communities, here are three key takeaways from Oregon’s successful campaign:

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  • Building concern and passion for the outdoors means getting kids out of the classroom and into the woods. By passing Measure 99, Oregonians recognized that the path to really understanding our world begins through rigorous science education. And that nature is the best science lab of all. Unlike learning inside the classroom or from a textbook, getting kids outside awakens their innate curiosity and love for nature. Much more than a field trip, Outdoor School type programs provide tools and insights needed to understand critical concepts such as ecosystem interdependencies as well as for understanding complex issues such as climate change. We found that voters understand that this type of education at a young age sets in motion a lifetime of environmental awareness, while also contributing to a healthy, active lifestyle. (See my TedXPortland talk on this topic.)
  • Outdoor education offers an invaluable opportunity for science learning and intellectual development. Research and teachers confirm that Outdoor School reaches children at a critical age, expanding not only their intellectual capacity but also their personal growth–teaching collaboration, problem solving and resilience. New economies and job markets value these skills more than ever before. If our nation is going to produce future generations of dreamers and doers then we need more programs like Oregon’s Outdoor School.
  • Inclusiveness is essential to the future of environmental progress. Connecting with the natural world bridges ideologies and cultures, and is valued by both rural and urban communities. Natural resource companies, including timber and agriculture, found common ground with outdoor and environmental organizations in endorsing Measure 99. By ensuring Outdoor School is available to all students, Oregon’s program will build a more equitable, shared connection to nature that will make tomorrow’s conservation movement stronger and far more diverse, responding to America’s changing demographics and increased diversity.

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While all states are challenged by limited education funding and competing priorities, Oregon’s success in passing funding for universal Outdoor School ought to inspire the everyone concerned about kids and the future. Change can happen. It starts first and foremost by awakening the love of nature in the next generation. And what better place to do it than where we find them every day–in school.

Photo credits: Creative Commons

Additional Reading & Resources

Read more about the Outdoor School for All effort here.
THE SCHOOL OF NATURE: Greening Our Schools May Be The Real Cutting Edge of Education
CALL TO ACTION: How State Departments of Education Can Get Children Outdoors
‘Natureplay’ Film Reveals Scandinavia’s Amazing Nature-based Education System
VITAMIN N IN KINDERGARTEN: Nature-Based Education


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