O'Malley: Kids need more outdoor education

Hopes to expand statewide standards

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, 04/22/09

Pamela Wood - The Capital
Gov. Martin O'Malley rows Georgetown East Elementary School students Jennare Johnson and Caleb Little around the Severn River at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville.

Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to push to require students to get out of the classroom and into nature more often.

Speaking at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center yesterday, the day before Earth Day, O'Malley said he'll ask the State Board of Education to increase outdoor-learning requirements.

"It's our hope to have statewide standards and a statewide curriculum," he said.

A panel appointed by O'Malley issued a series of recommendations yesterday, including requiring every child to experience outdoor learning once a year. The current requirement is three times before graduation - once each in elementary, middle and high school.

Panel members also said there needs to be more teacher training and students should complete a designated environmental curriculum before graduation.

O'Malley said he agreed with all of the recommendations from the group, which is officially called the Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature.

He issued a proclamation yesterday establishing the "Maryland Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights," which fulfilled one of the nature partnership's recommendations.

"It's good for kids to be out in nature," the governor said while surrounded by students from Georgetown East Elementary School, who were at Arlington Echo for a two-day field trip.

He then turned to the children and asked, "How many of you think it's good for kids to be out in nature?" Nearly all of the little hands quickly shot into the air.

The bill of rights spells out that children should have the opportunity to engage in activities such as camping under the stars, following a trail and catching a fish.

O'Malley said it's crucial to get kids to understand environmental problems such as Chesapeake Bay pollution and climate change through hands-on learning.

Before making his official announcement, the governor chatted with the children and then rowed a bit on the Severn River with third-graders Jennare Johnson and Caleb Little.

The need to get children outside has gained attention in recent years, first with the publication of the book, "Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv, who coined the term "nature deficit disorder" to explain the affliction suffered by youngsters who spend too much time on the computer, in front of video games or with cell phones attached to their ears.

The movement picked up steam after Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Baltimore County, attempted last year to require outdoor education for all American children. He said he plans to reintroduce the bill today.

Don Baugh, vice president of education for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Maryland is poised to be a leader in the movement thanks to the efforts of O'Malley and Sarbanes.

Arlington Echo Director Steve Barry, who served on the nature partnership, was more pragmatic.

"I just want to see this go from talk to action," he said.

(Revised April 2009)