No child left inside: Small grants for getting kids outdoors in high demand

Seventh graders at the Higher Ground Academy ice fish on Como Lake.
Seventh graders from the Higher Ground Academy charter school in St. Paul go ice fishing on the city's Como Lake last January. Physical education teacher Karl Erickson said the school is using a $5,000 No Child Left Inside grant to purchase ice fishing equipment, including fish houses, heaters and fish finders.
Courtesy of Karl Erickson

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources put out a call for its first round of No Child Left Inside grants in October.

The requests were modest — schools, nonprofits and community organizations could ask for up to $5,000 to support programs that get kids outdoors — but the response was overwhelming.

"Within six minutes,” the DNR’s Jeff Ledermann said, “we had 200 applications."

Ledermann oversees the new program as a supervisor in the DNR’s fish and wildlife outreach office. He said the agency received a flood of applications in just a few days, leaving his team with the unenviable task of deciding which 60 of the 450 pitches for everything from showshoes to an orienteering course would get funding.

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Many of the grant requests were for purchasing equipment, like cross-country skis.

"But the majority of the projects were really just trying to do classes outside, right at their school, right on their campus,” Ledermann said, “which was really encouraging."

Lawmakers allocated $1.2 million to the program last year, for outdoor recreation and education projects, and to fund school-based outdoor sports like trapshooting and fishing teams.

The effort garnered bipartisan support because it has broad appeal: Research shows that spending time outdoors improves kids’ physical and mental health; helps foster a sense of environmental stewardship; and it’s good for the state’s bottom line, at a time when Minnesota has seen a decline in hunting and fishing license sales.

Now, there's a second round of No Child Left Inside grants, ready to be handed out for larger projects, up to $50,000.

The list of 60 projects funded by the first round of grants was just released this week. Among the recipients:

  • The Albany Area Fishing Team in Stearns County to help launch a program in February

  • Pillager Public Schools in Cass County to develop a cross country ski trail for use by gym classes

  • Bryn Mawr Elementary in Minneapolis to improve the school’s forest

  • St. Charles High School in Winona County to allow more students to participate on the trapshooting team

  • Bertha-Hewitt Elementary School in Todd County for benches for an outdoor classroom

  • Minneapolis South High School for a hunting and fishing program through its All Nations American Indian program

Ledermann said some grants just covered the basics schools or organizations needed to get students outside.

"We had several applications that actually just were looking for rain gear and boots and hats and mittens and basic things because their kids didn't have them," he said.

Other applications aimed to take kids farther afield.

For the past 20 years, Bob Ameli, a science teacher at Andover High School just north of Minneapolis, has led students on winter camping expeditions into the Boundary Waters.

He said he's already spent most of his $5,000 grant on ice augers, sleeping bags and other equipment necessary for surviving outside in February.

"It's a life-changing experience for these kids because they've never done anything that exceptional,” he said. “And it is exceptional. I mean, we've had minus 37-degree temperatures up there with kids. And they're up there for five days, sleeping in snow shelters or tents."

The goal, he said, is to help students become environmental stewards and to encourage them to embrace a lifelong healthy lifestyle.

Andover High School science teacher Bobak Ameli.
Andover High School science teacher Bob Ameli has already spent much of his $5,000 No Child Left Inside grant on sleeping bags and other equipment for an annual student winter camping expedition to the Boundary Waters. He's seen here in 2018 with then seniors David Hall, Derek Beach, Jake Schwartz and Zach Simonson (left to right) on Seagull Lake.
Courtesy of Bob Ameli

"Personally, I have a passion for getting kids away from phones, technology, and getting them back in the outdoors, to experience nature,” said Nathan Hylla, part of the group helping to start the Albany Area Fishing Team. “There's a lot of benefits to fishing and hunting that go beyond catching and shooting."

There's also an economic reason to get more kids involved outdoors.

The number of Minnesotans buying hunting and fishing licenses has declined in recent years. That revenue is used to fund many conservation programs in the state.

"And if we can encourage the schools and different groups that can apply for these dollars to encourage these kids, I think it's going to be a benefit for us all,” said state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who co-sponsored the bill that established the grant program.

A key focus of No Child Left Inside is to reach young people who don't already have opportunities to get outdoors.

“We kind of have this idea of what a hunter angler looks like,” said state Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, who championed the law. “And I think we kind of fall into that rut. And so, this was an idea to try something new and hopefully bring some different groups of people in that haven't been brought into this realm before."

That's exactly what Karl Erickson is trying to do.

The physical education teacher at Higher Ground Academy, a charter school in St. Paul, is using his grant money to buy ice augers, warming houses and other gear to take his students, most of whom are of East African heritage, ice fishing on the city's Como Lake.

He said he’s taken about 200 kids over the past two winters, but wants to bring all the school’s students in grades four through 12. He wants all of his students to get to experience ice fishing for the first time.

"I mean, they're laughing, they're giggling, they're screaming," he said. And some are even catching big bass and pike.

Now, he said, the word has spread, and students start to badger him once the lakes freeze over.

"Kids have been asking, ‘Mr. Karl, when are we going ice fishing? Are we going fishing? Who's going fishing?’’’ he said with a laugh.

Thursday is the deadline to apply for the second round of grants for the one-time program.

But both Becker-Finn, a Democrat, and Ingebrigtsen, a Republican, say they'd like to extend No Child Left Inside beyond this year.

“I really do hope, you know, when the dollars actually start going out and we start seeing the programs happening, that people are going to be even more supportive when they see the dollars actually being put to work,” said Becker-Finn.

Correction (Jan. 9, 2020): An earlier version of the story misspelled Nathan Hylla’s and Karl Erickson’s last names. The story has been updated.