Why universal outdoor school is the right thing to do.

By Lauren Johnson of Portland, Oregon. Tree hugger, educator, proud member of the Emerge Oregon class of 2015, and brand new precinct committee person in HD 43.

I love a walk in the woods. Any woods will do. The sound of a brook or a waterfall puts me in a very happy place. I love to ski and camp and go backpacking. For a time, I worked on behalf of ranchers, fishermen, foresters, who were stewarding the natural resources to sustain rural livelihoods and healthy food for all of us.

Biologist E.O. Wilson believes we come hardwired to love nature, but without experience in it, we risk becoming conditioned against it. Maintaining our innate love of nature is why I'm so passionate about Outdoor School, the weeklong outdoor science experience for 5th and 6th graders throughout the state that is one of the most-loved traditions in Oregon.

It is also one of the most endangered.

Fortunately, a coalition of groups and a growing chorus of everyday Oregonians have come together for Outdoor School for All. They are stewarding two bi-partisan bills in the Oregon Legislature right now and which should to be made into law.

Outdoor School for All’s pending legislation quite possibly the best thing that Oregon can do for the long term: it's practical, it's healthy, and, most importantly, it's equitable.

It's a practical matter to educate young people now who will steward our natural resources into the future. Our state’s family farmers, ranchers, fishers, and foresters depend on state decision-makers and the future leaders of our economy who may have direct experience with the outdoors and have a basis for understanding the value of a sustained natural resource base.

Outdoor School is a matter of health. Teaching children about nature engenders a feeling that leads them to explore it further. And being in nature is one of the healthiest things you can do. Research is emerging showing that exposure to nature reduces stress, relieves anxiety, and supports recovery from trauma. Really, as a matter of health, you almost can't get too much nature.

Equity in education is an ongoing issue across our state and outdoor education is becoming something only kids from wealthy school districts can afford. Without universal Outdoor School, we widen the gap ever further between children who are provided opportunities to thrive and those that are not.

When I moved here in 2001, I was already a tree hugger, but truly delighted at this rite of passage that was part of every kid's experience. It became part of my two children’s experience. With roots in the 1950's Outdoor School defined something really special about Oregon.

Now it’s becoming alarmingly diminished. Most schools are unable to participate without a sizable contribution from parents. Due to budget cuts over the years, only 50% of kids are able to go, and most often only for 3 days instead of 5.

SB 439 and HB 2648 will ensure all 5th and 6th graders will have access to a week of Outdoor School -- the full ride that is one of the most defining rites of passage for children in Oregon. These two bills need our support.

Let's do better for our children - and pass on the legacy that's been left for us. As one of the early leaders of Oregon’s Outdoor School, 89-year old Warren Gilfillan says, “If ever the world needed Outdoor School, it is now. The economic problems are overshadowing everything, but we’re headed down the road to destruction if we can’t get together and educate ourselves.”

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