By Brooke Hemze and Lindsay Renick Mayer, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
When Peter Ostlind was invited to take a 45-minute hike with a full class of kindergarteners up the ridge adjacent to their school, he wasn’t sure what to expect. What he did know was that getting kids outdoors would benefit them in ways big and small, even helping to foster the next generation of conservationists. In the end the kids came together hiking up the path pointing out flowers and insects along the way, Ostlind says. This class joined hundreds of other students who have benefited from the Teachers Outdoor Environmental Education Fund.
The Teachers Outdoor Environmental Education Fund, which Ostlind established through the Foundation in 2010, provides grants of up to $1,000 for public school teachers (K-12) to undertake outdoor environmental projects. The goal of the fund is to get kids outdoors and connected to the environment, to make sure they understand there’s more to what they’re learning than the pictures they see in their textbooks. Since the fund’s beginning, at least 14 grants have been awarded to Wisconsin’s schools for a total of more than $9,500.
Ostlind established this fund in memory of his wife, Sue, who was a teacher for more than 30 years. Sue was particularly interested in environmental education, Ostlind has a background in environmental sciences and natural resources policy, and the two were always spending time outside. Schools don’t often have the funds or equipment for teachers to take kids outside the classroom into the outdoors for learning, Ostlind says.
“If you don’t know about your environment, your surroundings, you’ll never develop a conservation ethic,” Ostlind says. “You can go back and look at all the writings of people like Aldo Leopold or Sigurd Olson or Wendell Berry and they start with understanding where they are, what the world around them looks like.”
In addition to taking youngsters on hikes, Ostlind has had the opportunity to see the fund in action by joining tours of various school forests and helping students in rowboats with water testing on Lake Wingra. He has also hand delivered checks to the teachers receiving them.
“Many conservationists talk about how the time they spent outside as a child really lit their passion for conservation,” says Ruth Oppedahl, Foundation executive director. “Pete Ostlind understands this. His fund is one of the Foundation’s main vehicles for reaching kids and ensuring they have an opportunity to get outside and connect with Wisconsin’s natural treasures.”
Kim Wahl, 2014 recipient of funding for the Highland School District applied for the fund to improve the natural area of her school’s forest by reducing invasive species and planting native woodland plants. This work in the forest was accompanied by a forest education plan focusing specifically on the school’s forest.
“This grant moved us in the right direction by providing funding for native woodland plants,” Wahl says. “Students were able to choose plants and then plant them after invasive removals. Students could learn how to sustainably manage natural areas while also appreciating the connections and value found in our natural systems.”
Apply for a Teachers Outdoor Environmental Education Fund grant or help support the program by making a donation to the fund. Applicants are also considered for funding through the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin’s C.D. Besadny Conservation Grant Program. Applications are due Sept. 1.