Environmental educators and others have worked for decades to reintroduce children to nature. But in recent years, too many school districts have turned inward, building windowless schools, banishing live animals from classrooms, and even dropping recess and field trips. But we are beginning to see progress. There have been a number of recent successes in the United States and elsewhere that may point to a cultural shift, reflecting a rapidly expanding grassroots children and nature movement - which has changed the tone of the public conversation.
The nonprofit Children & Nature Network, for which I now serve as chairman, has tracked and encouraged more than fifty regional campaigns that are helping reintroduce children to nature. These campaigns, often focused on children’s health, will offer added power to a nascent, overdue movement for what might be called natural school reform.
Bucking the status quo, an increasing number of educators are committed to an approach that infuses education with direct experience, especially in nature - one that redefines the classroom.
On September 18, the U.S. House of Representatives took a step in that direction, by voting to approve the No Child Left Inside Act of 2008. Approved by a bi-partisan vote of 293 to 109, the bill would require K-12 school systems to build environmental literacy, strengthen teacher training and provide federal grants to help schools pay for outdoor education. In coming months and years (whether or not the Senate version of the bill is approved) educators will be encouraged to return nature to the classroom - but the key to success will be if sufficient support comes to educators who take students beyond the classroom, into the rich environments of nearby nature: parks, farms, the woods and creeks and canyons adjacent to schools.
This approach to education is not new, and the definitions and nomenclature of this educational movement are tricky. In recent decades, the approach has gone by many names: community-oriented schooling, bioregional education, experiential education and, most recently, place-based or environment-based education. The basic idea is to use the surrounding community, including nature, as the preferred classroom. When it comes to reading skills, “the Holy Grail of education reform,” says researcher and educator David Sobel, place-based or environment-based education should be considered “one of the knights in shining armor.” Students in these programs typically outperform their peers in traditional classrooms. Sponsored by many state departments of education, a 1998 study documented the enhanced school achievement of youth who experience school curricula in which the environment is the principal organizer.
More recently, factoring out other variables, studies of students in California and nationwide showed that schools that used outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education were associated with significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. One recent study found that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent.
A nature-balanced life reduces many barriers to education, including stress and attention deficit. Researchers at the University of Illinois have shown that the greener a child’s everyday environment, the more manageable their symptoms of attention-deficit disorder. Teachers could also benefit from natural education reform. Canadian researchers found that teachers expressed renewed enthusiasm for teaching when they had time outdoors. In an era of increased teacher burnout, the impact of green schools and outdoor education on teachers should not be underestimated.
One exciting development is the increasing popularity of nature preschools, where children learn to track wildlife even as they learn to read.
Design approaches are central to the movement. “Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imaginations and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity,” says Robin Moore, an international authority on natural school design, who heads the Natural Learning Initiative. New schools must be designed with nature in mind, and old schools can be refitted with playscapes that incorporate nature into the central design principle. Another approach is the use of nature preserves by environment-based schools, or the inclusion of established farms and ranches as part of these “new schoolyards.” Norway’s departments of Education and Agriculture support partnerships between educators and farmers to revamp school curriculum and to provide more direct outdoor experience and participation in practical tasks.
Ultimately, K-12 education cannot be transformed without reforming higher education - which sets many of the standards and expectations for primary and secondary education. In higher education, greater public knowledge about the generational nature gap should educate policy-makers to require universities to teach the fundamentals of natural history, which have been displaced in recent decades, especially at research universities, by a patent-or-perish emphasis on microbiology and genetic engineering. Higher education can also more consciously engage students as researchers on topics involving the relationship between children and nature, and the opportunities that will emerge as nature takes a more central role in people’s lives.
In coming decades, environmental challenges will require fundamental changes in our lives and institutions, including the reintroduction of nature to the classroom and the young to the natural world.
This article was first published in Green Money Journal, reprinted here with permission.
Richard Louv is chairman of the Children & Nature Network and the author of seven books, including his most recent, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder”(Algonquin). He is the recipient of the 2008 Audubon Medal, and has served as an adviser to the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award program, is a member of the Citistates Group, appears often on national radio and television programs, and speaks frequently in the United States and overseas.
Useful links for this article include:
o The Children & Nature Network
o Related research and studies
o Toronto Star report on homework loads and play
o New York Times article: Why are Schools Designed Like Prisons?
o Finland education system
o Track No Child Left Inside Act
o Natural Learning Initiative