Conservation Column: Outdoor School—The True Elixir

Daffy’s elixir was a popular product sold in Britain in the 18th century. It promised to prevent or cure pretty much every ailment known to man, from lack of energy to “griping of the bowels.” Despite its popularity for over a century (later the recipe was found to be mostly brandy), few people today would be duped by its claim as “the choice drink of health.” But what if something like this were real? What if there was a relatively quick and inexpensive way to achieve the following health benefits for our children: stress reduction, prevention of mental health disorders including depression, decreased need for ADHD drugs, and improved attention spans? What if it also had been shown to lower the risk of smoking and substance abuse, boost serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitter), increase levels of Vitamin D, result in better distance vision, and decrease the risk of obesity and other metabolic disorders associated with too much inactivity?

What if there were recognized academic and life benefits—playing more cooperatively with others; significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math performance; enhanced creativity and enhanced social skills; reports of greater happiness; development of leadership abilities, improved critical thinking; and enhanced self-esteem, self-confidence, independence, autonomy, and initiative? 

Too good to be true? All of this has been documented in the scientific literature focused on outdoor education programs. The Outdoor School Lottery Fund Initiative, Measure 99 on the ballot this month, would create a separate fund, financed through the Oregon Lottery Economic Development Fund and administered by Oregon State University (OSU), to provide Outdoor School programs statewide. Oregon has had outdoor school programs since the 1950s, but unfortunately funding shortfalls have made the program financially prohibitive in many school districts. A yes vote on 99 would ensure that 5th and 6th grade students throughout the state participate in a full week of Outdoor School programs. Approximately $22 million, less than 2 percent of lottery revenue, for Outdoor School programs fits the Oregon voter mandate that lottery funds be used to support economic development, education, and Oregon’s natural resources (with 1 percent set aside for problem gambling treatment.) An economic analysis found that Outdoor School will provide a $27 million annual economic impact and help generate 600 jobs, largely in rural parts of Oregon that need them most.

A study out of Portland showed that outdoor school improved subsequent school attendance, with this effect especially strong for males, Asian students, and students who spoke Spanish as their first language. Keeping kids in school makes both societal and economic sense. Another study found that a high school dropout costs taxpayers an average of $292,000 over a lifetime. Measure 99 will ensure funds are used across the state. It spans the urban/rural divide and reduces disparity between wealthy and poorer school districts. The multidisciplinary curriculum inspires students about their futures while preparing them to be stewards of our natural resources. Many young people describe Outdoor School as being transformational. Well-researched reviews of the study of outdoor education come to nearly the same conclusion: these programs “contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development.” For only $400 per student, we can ensure that students in Oregon have access to this elixir!

FMI: outdoorschoolforall.org/