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How Nature Can Transform Education

Beyond the landmark "No Child Left Inside" act.

Talk about great timing. On September 18, during the Children & Nature Network's 2008 National Grassroots Gathering in Nebraska, mobile phones in the room lit up with good news: The U.S. House of Representatives had just voted to approve the No Child Left Inside Act of 2008. This was an extraordinary moment – symbolizing just how far the children and nature movement has come in just a few short years.

Sponsored by John P. Sarbanes (D-MD), with sixty-four co-sponsors, HR 3036 was approved by a bi-partisan vote of 293 to 109, would require K-12 school systems to build environmental literacy, strengthen teacher training and provide federal grants to help schools pay for outdoor education. Representing the No Child Left Inside Coalition that supported the bill, Don Baugh said it was “designed to help states provide high-quality outdoor and environmental instruction.” The Sierra Club, one of the 745 supporting organizations, lauded the legislation: “Hands-on outdoor environmental education offers an opportunity to improve academic performance in our schools and provides a solution for reversing the trends of childhood obesity and ‘nature deficit disorder’ that are afflicting a generation.”

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 also to take students beyond the classroom, into the rich environments of nearby nature: parks, farms, the woods and creeks and canyons adjacent to schools.

This would be a far cry from the current realities in most schools. 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.

As passage of the No Child Left Behind Act illustrates, new progress is taking place nationally, and also among state legislatures, schools and businesses, civic organizations and government agencies. In March 2007, the New Mexico state legislature approved the Outdoor Classrooms Initiative, an effort to increase outdoor education in the state. Then on April 21, John Muir’s birthday, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law the Leave No Child Inside initiative, legislation that allocates $1.5 million a year to outdoor programs working with underserved children. More legislation is on the way. Additionally, C&NN is tracking and encouraging more than fifty regional campaigns in the U.S. and Canada, which are bringing together educators, health care professionals, business people, conservationists and others.

These campaigns, often focused on children’s health and ability to learn, are offering added power to a nascent, overdue movement for what might be called natural school reform.

In recent decades, this educational 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. For more than one reason, the time may have come for place-based education. When polled about the future of education, Americans seem to have lost faith in education reform; they express interest and hope only when education is placed in the context of family and community — and steeped in place.

When it comes to reading skills, “the Holy Grail of education reform,” says researcher and educator David Sobel, place-based education should be considered “one of the knights in shining armor.” (Sobel’s most recent book is “Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators.”) Students in these programs typically outperform their peers in traditional classrooms. A 1998 study documented the enhanced school achievement of youth who experience school curricula in which the environment is the principal organizer. Two related studies followed, conducted by the U.S.’s State Education and Environment Roundtable, both of which produced results consistent with the original study. 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 study found that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent.

Why do kids learn so much better when they have a chance to get outdoors? Nature experiences reduce many barriers to learning, including stress and attention deficit, while encouraging the full use of the senses.

Andrea Faber Taylor and Francis Kuo, 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, and in a report published in August, 2008, described how children concentrate better after a simple walk in the park. Many other studies suggest that children who spend more time in nature are healthier, happier and smarter. Teachers, too, can benefit from natural education reform. In Canada, 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. These are just a few of the gifts of nature that educators and parents are discovering – or rediscovering.

Richard Louv is chairman of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

More resources:


• House Approves No Child Left Inside Act

• No Child Left Inside Coalition

• “Last Child in the Woods,” Second Edition, with 100 actions for educators, parents and communities