NCEL Blog

Outdoor Engagement State of Play Part I: Increasing Outdoor Access

July 19, 2019 | This is part I of a four-part series on state outdoor engagement policies. Stay tuned for the next posts about wellness, education standards, and offices of outdoor recreation.

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There are a multitude of benefits from time outdoors, particularly for youth. Improved wellbeing, economic development, and conservation stewardship are a few, but research is continually showing the benefits of engaging kids from a young age. REI’s The Path Ahead report highlights how 20 minutes a day can reduce ADHD symptoms in children and the 2017 book The Nature Fix provides many examples of how nature makes humans happier and healthier. 

For state legislators, the question is how to best facilitate outdoor access that often occurs at the local level. Perhaps more importantly, it’s essential that these outdoor experiences are accessible for all people regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or other factors by reducing barriers such as participation cost.

Washington state championed one of the earliest initiatives with the No Child Left Inside program (HB1677; 2007) that provides grants to create outdoor engagement opportunities for underserved and low-income youth. The grants are distributed to a wide array of entities including schools, nonprofit organizations, and public agencies that facilitate these experiences. From 2015-2019, the program funded 58 projects which served a total of 30,196 children. This equates to 753,020 hours of education and funded 134 staff positions.

Several states have adopted similar models in recent years to encourage outdoor experiences. In 2019, Minnesota established a No Child Left Inside grant program as part of their larger environmental omnibus bill (original language HF133/SF868), while Nevada (AB331) and Utah (SB222) also created Outdoor Education and Recreation Grant Programs. California has a similar bill pending, AB209.

States are also working to raise awareness about the prevalence of outdoor opportunities within their borders.

In 2016, Colorado became one of the first states to designate an official “Public Lands Day” (SB21). The third Saturday in May is now officially a recognition of how public lands are important to the economy and the quality of life. A variety of events are hosted across the state, and similar days have since been designated in Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington.

Ohio state legislators created a bipartisan Trails Caucus to create opportunities for legislators themselves to spend more time outdoors by hiking in different parts of the state. The Caucus also sponsored a concurrent resolution to designate 2018 as the Year of the Trails along with directing the state to create an interactive trail map so residents can more readily access outdoor experiences. That website is available here.

Simple, low-cost initiatives like these are incredibly useful in helping people identify outdoor opportunities near them that they might not otherwise know about. But challenges can persist in actually getting to parks and natural areas along with paying the fees.

As a result, the California legislature passed a Community Access Program in 2018 (AB2614) to create a grant program to provide disadvantaged and low-income youth with access to outdoor experiences. In many cases, transportation is a significant hurdle for children to access beaches and other natural areas despite only living a short distance away.  New York has also established a grant program, called Connect Kids to Parks, which offers $1,000 grants for field trip costs. 

Nevada is reducing financial barriers to park by granting free entry to state parks for fifth-grade students, ages 9-11 (AB385; 2017). This mirrors the federal Every Kid in a Park program established in 2015 granting national park access to fourth graders. The program was recently authorized for seven years through the Natural Resources Management Act which also reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Several other states are looking to adopt this model as well.

States have also found ways to work within the school system to increase outdoor engagement. 

In Oregon, the innovative Outdoor School program (SB439; 2015) provides up to a week of residential outdoor school for every fifth or sixth grade student in the state. The program is funded by lottery dollars and supports school district expenses to administer the program while establishing model curriculum in line with current education standards. A report on the first year of the program showed participation from 30,739 students who collectively spent a total of 115,131 days outside.

Washington state is working to engage students even younger through an Outdoor Preschool Pilot Program (SB5357; 2017). The program adapts the definition of a preschool in a way that allows for outdoor early learning programs. More information about the pilot project currently underway is available here.

State governments can play a significant role in highlighting the importance of time outdoors and ensuring those benefits are enjoyed by everyone in the state. Providing access through financial support, transportation, or simply highlighting nearby trails can create healthier residents and stronger economies, while also developing young conservation stewards of the future.