No year in memory has shown so many of us that we need to be outdoors – that it is not optional, but essential. So many Mainers sought the outdoors for our physical and mental health that Maine state parks saw a record-shattering 3 million visits in 2020. The outdoors has been more than just a way to get out of the house; it is a reminder of deep ties that make us feel alive, more authentically connected with others, more linked to the natural landscape we call Maine.

If the outdoors has been this critically important to adults, it’s doubly so for youth. Even before the pandemic, youth were in need: The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that young teens spend an average of nine hours per day on a screen and, according to social scientists, fewer than 10 minutes outdoors. Research shows that in addition to serving the mental and physical well-being of youth, learning outdoors brings academic benefits, including enhanced critical thinking skills and improved test results.

When youth have the opportunity to spend significant time outside, they benefit now and in the future. Maine has a vibrant natural resource and recreation economy, a burgeoning agricultural economy, a historic maritime economy and a growing green economy. All of these depend on youth inspired to turn a love of the outdoors into a career. All youth have a right to these opportunities, and the well-being and prosperity of our communities and state depend on it. So we are thrilled that Speaker Ryan Fecteau has sponsored H.P. 1087, Joint Resolution Supporting All Maine Youth Outdoors, which celebrates the benefits of time spent outdoors for Maine youth, and the innovation of Maine schools in using the outdoors to meet student needs now and into the future.

In 2020, Maine communities showed themselves resilient and innovative, building collective solutions with grit, mutual support and no small dose of courage. Nowhere is this clearer than in Maine schools, which have found radically new ways of meeting student needs overnight. Many schools and districts recognize that outdoor settings both address pandemic health challenges and are a powerful tool to cultivate student success. With the support of school leaders, teachers, community organizations, parents and the Maine Department of Education, so many schools demonstrated ongoing commitment to outdoor learning that Maine is now regarded as a national leader.

Even as we celebrate this success, we have work to do. Ask any school leader or teacher whether shifting classrooms outdoors has been easy and you’ll hear what barriers they have faced – training, curriculum development, gear access, availability of outdoor space, transportation, financial resources and more. Each of these challenges has innovative solutions that Maine educators have created, shared and evolved over the course of the year. But for every school that has found a way to make learning outdoors available to students in formalized or informal practices, there is another that lacked the resources, information or support to make it happen. As a state, we can’t let these opportunities flow to only some of our youth. Every Maine youth has a right to be connected to their community and their natural environment, to learn in complex and multidisciplinary outdoor spaces and to be engaged in career pathways in the great Maine outdoors.

HP 1087 sets us on a course toward equitable access to the outdoors for all Maine youth, regardless of the resources of their school, community or family. We encourage every Maine legislator who believes that time outdoors is essential and that every youth has a right to connect with the outdoors in their own way, to vote in favor April 28. We encourage every Mainer to reach out to their local legislators to ask for their support.

And we can’t stop there. We each have a voice and can use it to open doors, whether at the state, school board or school level. 2020 has taught us that there are countless other lovers of the outdoors ready to join voices to make available the meaningful outdoor experiences we want for our children, our families and ourselves.

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