Bill pushes for outdoor education for all Minnesota children

School could go outside for every child in Minnesota if legislators approve a bill introduced just before the end of this year’s session.

The "Outdoor School for All" bill aims to break down financial barriers and deliver an overnight learning experience with proven educational and emotional benefits.

With a firm grip and uneasy steps, Spencer Eesley battled his fear of heights across a ropes course a couple of dozen feet above the ground and soared across a zip line to the finish line.

"On the course was a little bit nerve wracking, but as you go on, it gets a little better," said Eesley, a rising ninth grader at St. Croix Preparatory Academy in Stillwater.

The optional balance, endurance, and courage challenge at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center — about 90 minutes up the North Shore from Duluth — also serves as emotional education.

"It’s about them figuring out the edges of their comfort zone, how to expand beyond the edges of their comfort zone," said Leah Kessler, a graduate naturalist at Wolf Ridge.

Science teacher Lindsey Schutte started bringing St. Croix students here seven years ago.

"You know, we can do experiments and things but it’s more applicable when you get to actually test things out," Schutte said.

GPS classes teach students how to find their way in the woods and problem solve. Lessons cover natural science and cultural history, but some of what’s taught is less obvious. Children experience life away from their parents and see teachers in a different light.

"Students sometimes who don’t do well in a formal classroom setting absolutely blossom out here," said Wolf Ridge executive director Peter Smerud.

After an hour canoeing on Grindstone Lake, Louis Nelson Grossbauer hit the shore excited about what he’s done at Osprey Wilds Environmental Learning Center in Sandstone.

"We’ve been learning about different kinds of animals and outdoor wilderness," said the rising eighth grader from Eagan.

Students at Osprey Wilds climb a practice wall before hitting the Sandstone Quarry. On the same day, they hang out with a porcupine, snakes, and a bald eagle.

Over the last 50-plus years, hundreds of thousands of students have gone through the multi-day experiences at these outdoor schools — two of five in the state.

But right now, only 30% of Minnesota students get access to them — often for financial reasons.

The average American child spends about four to seven minutes a day playing outside and over seven hours a day in front of a screen, according to the Child Mind Institute.

The Outdoor School for All bill would establish a statewide grant program opening the outdoor school opportunity to every child sometime between fourth and eighth grade.

"We want them to know this is out there for them to explore, to get out to and learn in and to become familiar with so that they can have those lifelong experiences outdoors and that they can see they have a role to play in shaping how we take care of this planet," said Osprey Wilds executive director Bryan Wood.

A long list of legislators signed on as sponsors when it was introduced in May.

"With the huge bipartisan support, what we're looking to do, this is something that if there's going to be some supplementary funding available, I think this would be pretty high on that list," said Sen. Jason Rarick (R-Pine City).

"It’s something with value that’s easy to see," said Rep. Nathan Nelson (R-Hinckley).

Appropriations committees would determine how much funding the program gets. And the five accredited outdoor schools couldn’t host every single student, so it’ll take more than GPS to navigate the path forward.

But Spencer Eesley would tell you it’s a challenge worth climbing.

"It’s maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said.