Effort Aims to Get Kids Outside

From canoeing trips on the Chesapeake Bay to endangered butterfly camps in Rhode Island, outdoor and environmental educators across the country are asking Congress and state lawmakers for more money for nature learning.

The resolution is called "No Child Left Inside" and could result in millions more for environmental education - and a windfall for nonprofit groups hoping for more federal help getting children outside.

The resolution, which awaits a vote in the House, would send money to nonprofits and state departments of education for outdoor education and is aimed at children who now spend more time in front of computer screens, video games and televisions than playing outside.

"This is so cool," said Emma Osborn, 12, of Annapolis, as she climbed out of a canoe on Broad Creek, through rural Delaware.

She is one of roughly 12 children who is participating in a weeklong outdoor camp run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to clean up the country's largest estuary. The group teaches nature programs to 40,000 children across three states each year. Highlights of the camp include night hikes, setting up tents and campfires and learning to read topographical maps and navigate canoes.

Environmental activism groups say nature learning is crucial amid alarming rates of childhood obesity and a growing concern about the health of the outdoors.

"You're seeing a disconnection from the natural world," said Don Baugh, a foundation vice president. "And you're also seeing a lot of health issues from kids not building a fort out back or playing on the stoop and their neighborhood."

Those worries also are getting politicians' attention.

"I think it's responding to a number of anxieties out there," especially childhood obesity and the environment, said Rep. John Sarbanes, Maryland Democrat and the resolutions's lead sponsor. "The next generation is the one that's going to make or break us as a planet."

Mr. Sarbanes hopes Congress will include roughly $500 million over five years for outdoor education when members revisit the resolution next year. He also said he is optimistic about it clearing at the least the House before members return next term.

As Congress weighs Mr. Sarbanes' resolution, many states aren't waiting.

"Not one person I've ever talked to doesn't think this is a good idea," said Shareen Knowlton, director of education at the Roger Williams Zoo and Park in Providence, R.I.

Miss Knowlton runs weeklong teacher training courses on American burying beetles and wants to start a new program studying the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.

"But the funding isn't there," she said.

At the Sibley Nature Center, a 49-acre nature preserve in west Texas, Executive Director Burr Williams has two nature teachers but wants to hire more, and build a corral and barn to hold live animals. He says the "No Child Left Inside" push is the result of years of pressure from outdoor educators to bring back the classic field trip.

Maryland officials also are pushing for nature education.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, Democrat, issued an executive order earlier this year pushing for more outdoors education, parks managers plan to start work later this month on new nature teaching programs.

"We've got this growing crisis on our hands where we've got these kids magnetized to the computer," said John R. Griffin, head of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, which manages state parks.

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