Pillager Public School west of Brainerd has an outdoors legacy that few Minnesota schools can match.

Beyond its traditional classrooms, the school controls not one but two educational forests. One of those land holdings gets used frequently as a learning place for photography, outdoor ventures and forestry.

The other one — a 40-acre grove located 10 to 15 minutes off campus — has been ignored. That's about to change under Minnesota's No Child Left Inside grant program.

The spanking new program recently announced its first 59 awards, including $5,000 for Pillager to buy enough Nordic ski equipment to outfit a classroom. When legislators created the $1.4 million program last year, a chief purpose was to coax kids to step away from electronics to participate more in fishing, hunting, shooting sports and other outdoor pursuits.

Kim Lund, Pillager's outdoor ventures teacher, said she shares that goal. Even kids who live in north-central Minnesota's woodsy lake country are hooked on screens, she said.

"We're just trying to be creative to give kids a reason to put down the technology,'' Lund said.

She said the new ski equipment will boost plans she has made with two other teachers to build a cross-country ski trail through Pillager's forgotten school forest. Students will help design the trail and create it. The skiing itself will be new to most students, Lund said.

Jeff Ledermann, an outreach worker for the Department of Natural Resources, said the No Child Left Inside program has been met with an explosion of interest and is well into its second phase. The deadline was last week, and winners will be announced in early April. If the fund is not exhausted by then, the DNR will open the door to a third round, Ledermann said. Schools and nonprofit organizations dominate the field of applicants.

Doug Olson, who teaches a class in greenhouse management at Milaca High School, said he applied for $5,000 to modernize his annual outdoor class on making maple syrup. Students tap nearby silver maple trees for sap. They boil it down to syrup with a wood-fired stove that's undersized and cumbersome, Olson said. It takes too long to reach the proper temperature and is left "glowing hot'' after hours.

"I love the process, but I always worried about safety,'' Olson said.

He's using the grant money to buy a modern propane-powered evaporator along with new bottling and finishing equipment. The upgrade could double the students' efficiency, Olson said.

"It's something they will remember better than anything in a classroom,'' he said.

Legislators specified that a portion of the grant money go to fishing, hunting and shooting sports, and Lakeville South High School received a $5,000 grant narrowly defined to offset shooting range fees during the spring clay target season.

The same amount was awarded to Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul, a charter school that serves underprivileged students from the inner city. Physical education teacher Karl Erickson, who applied for the grant, said he's using it to purchase four or five pop-up shelters and other ice fishing equipment. The gear will solidify a winter program that has allowed 700 students a year to fish on Lake Como.

"They wouldn't be going ice fishing if this wasn't happening at school,'' Erickson said.

Sam Werle, a recreation specialist for Duluth Parks and Recreation, said he's addressing a similar need with grant money to buy 25 sets of snowshoes.

"It's super exciting that this is an opportunity,'' Werle said. "It's another way to reach out to get kids outside.''

Werle said the city will lead outings to parks and trails where kids can combine snowshoeing with outdoor lessons about wildlife, cold weather safety, bird-watching and trees.

Ledermann of the DNR said No Child Left Inside rules don't require matching money. But fund matches will be considered. One of the initial winners was Reach Inc. Mentoring of Cloquet. The nonprofit came up with $4,269 in contributions to supplement the DNR's grant of $5,000. The cause? Winter and spring survivor programs taught to youth groups inside Jay Cooke State Park.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213