“Today, the three major environmental challenges of our time are climate change, the biodiversity collapse, and the disconnect between children and nature.” -Richard Louv, July 2013
- Environmental Education is a learning process that increases knowledge and awareness about the environment and develops skills that enable responsible decisions and actions that impact the environment (from ecology to sustainability). Environmental education encourages inquiry and investigation and enables the learner to develop critical-thinking, problem-solving, effective decision making, and systems-thinking skills.
- Outdoor education focuses on building self-confidence and knowledge through experiential and collaborative learning. There are multiple layers of outdoor education (recreational, educational, developmental, and therapeutic) that can be incorporated into curriculum and programing. Examples include outdoor free play, gardening, hiking, nature studies, and more.
Getting Students Outside
Today’s culture of “more” has put families under extreme pressure as they struggle to cope with the issues of excess consumption, marketing to children, increased use of screen devices, the strong influence of the media, over-scheduling, strong emphasis on structured “learning opportunities” at an early age, and the devaluing of free play. These issues cause a barrier to connecting children with nature and have a profound impact on the health of children, families, communities, and the planet.
Children’s disconnect from nature leads to a loss of curiosity about and interest in protecting the natural world (Louv, 2005). Tanner (1980), Palmer (1993) and Chawla (1999) all write about the importance of life experiences in nature and positive childhood role models in the development of an appreciation of nature. Unfortunately, children today are experiencing very different childhoods than generations past due to a wide variety of reasons, such as proliferation of screen devices, high value placed on adult-led, organized activities, parental fear, and the growing value of stuff over experience due to increased impact of advertising and marketing. Adding to this is the stress and exhaustion of today’s parents who are working longer hours and keeping busier schedules, which makes it more and more difficult for them to encourage their children to go outside to play, or to get outside together as a family.
Considering the growing strain our overconsumption is having on the ecosystem services that sustain life on our planet, we need to rapidly shift how we are living on this planet and increase the protection and preservation of natural lands across the globe. How do we make this shift when people are too busy or too disconnected to care? How do we build the awareness, knowledge and skills necessary to empower people to make impactful changes in their lives?
One approach is to transform education by getting our students outside and connected to the local environment and community. This is accomplished through spending time in nature on a regular basis, integrating outdoor and environmental education into all disciplines, and providing students with the skills to solve real-world problems (Hungerford & Volk, 1990). For those of us who work with secondary students there is an additional important component in environmental education to consider. As Saylan and Blumstein (2011) write in their book The Failure of Environmental Education:
“Environmental education can play a primary role in helping people learn why and how to change their behavior to reduce anthropogenic impacts on our planet. But simply teaching environmental topics will have little value if our societies continue to go about business as usual. We must teach a new message: that consumption has consequences for humanity’s future.”
By teaching students important skills in areas such as organic agriculture and gardening, local energy production, water conservation practices, transforming consumption habits, and waste reduction practices we can empower students and strengthen their internal locus of control. We can build the sense of collective efficacy that is important for bringing about change within a community. Thus as an environmental educator for the Anchorage School District I am developing a 6-12 outdoor classroom and learning garden that can be integrated into the broader curriculum, as well as collaborating with fellow teachers and area experts to develop a course that builds the skills needed to create more resilient, sustainable communities. The course is broken into two semesters and includes the following:
- Wicked problems, environmental issues and the three components of sustainability
- Ecological footprints
- Media literacy
- Biodynamics, permaculture and ecological farming
- Non-timber forest products (such as collecting and producing birch syrup)
- Keeping chickens and goats
- Establishing a garden
- Composting, soils and the biodynamic preparations
- Water use and rain barrels
- Diagnosing problems in the garden
- Garden art
- Farm overnight
- Social and environmental justice
- Environmental and community resiliency
- Farm overnight
- Foraging, useful boreal forest plants
- Canning, drying, freezing, fermenting
- Root cellaring
- Putting the garden to sleep
- Indoor gardening
- Seed saving
- Cooking and nutrition
- Zero waste
- Upcycling and repair
- Nature artwork
- Green cleaning
- Handwork and homemade gifts
Ultimately, if we are going to address the significant environmental and social issues facing society, we need to get students outside and reconnected to the land and to their communities. School gardens and outdoor classrooms provide an excellent venue for this, while also providing a space for calm and contemplation and a chance to draw connections between biology, chemistry, geology, philosophy, economics, health, art and more.
“We have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and subdisciplines, hermetically sealed from other such disciplines. As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate without any broad, integrated sense of the unity of things. The consequences for their personhood and for the planet are large. For example, we routinely produce economists who lack the most rudimentary understanding of ecology or thermodynamics. This explains why our national accounting systems do not subtract the costs of biotic impoverishment, soil erosion, poisons in our air and water, and resource depletion from the gross national product. We add the price of the sale of a bushel of wheat to the gross national product while forgetting to subtract the three bushels of topsoil lost to grow it. As a result of incomplete education, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are much richer than we are.” -David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect.
Sources and Recommended Reading for Educators and Parents
Antoine, S., Charles, C., Louv, R. (2012). Together in Nature: Pathways to a Stronger, Closer Family. Children and Nature Network.
Batker, D., de Graaf, J. (2012). What’s the Economy For, Anyway? Why It’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness. New York, NY: Bloomsburg Press.
Burdette, H.L., and Whitaker, R.C. (2005). Resurrecting free play in young children–Looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation, and affect. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 159 (1), 46-50.
Chawla, L. (1999). Life paths into effective environmental action. The Journal of Environmental Education. 31 (1), 15-26.
Chawla, Keena, Pevec and Stanley. (2014). Green schoolyards as havens from stress and resources for resilience in childhood and adolescence. Health and Place.
Children and Nature Network provides extensive research and resources.
Clements, R. (2004). An Investigation of the Status of Outdoor Play. Contemporary Issues In Early Childhood, 5(1), 68-80.
Cohen, Shimi. (2013). The Innovation of Loneliness. BOLD Studio.
Danks, S., & Principal, B. T. D. (2010). Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation. New York, NY: New Village Press.
Davis, Devra. (2013). The eZombie at Your Table. USA Today.
Dunckley, Victoria. (2015). Screentime is Making Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy. Psychology Today.
Finch, Ken. (2012). Risk and Reward in Nature Play. Ecology.
Fogle, Ben. (2015). We need fewer exams and more wilderness in education. The Guardian.
Goleman, D., Bennett, L., & Barlow, Z. (2012). Ecoliterate: How educators are cultivating emotional, social, and ecological intelligence. John Wiley & Sons.
Hayes, Shannon. (2015). Swapping Screen Time for Getting Dirty: Why Kids Need to Spend More Time Outside. Yes! Magazine.
Hungerford, H. R., & Volk, T. L. (1990). Changing learner behavior through environmental education. The journal of environmental education, 21(3), 8-21.
Kasser, Crompton, Linn. (2010). Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability. The Solutions Journal.
Kellert, Stephen. (2012). Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Leonard, A. (2010). The story of stuff: How our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health-and a vision for change. Simon and Schuster.
Leonard, Annie (2013). The Story of Solutions (video). The Story of Stuff Project.
Leslie, C.W., Tallmadge, J., Wessels, T. (1996). Into the Field: A Guide to Locally Focused Teaching. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Louv, R. (2012). The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books.
Louv, R. (2013, July 2). Using the bully pulpit to connect people to nature: Looking ahead with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel. Children and Nature Network.
Louv, R. (2013, November 18). The hybrid mind: The more high-tech schools become, the more nature they need. Children and Nature Network.
Louv, R. (2014). Bring down the barriers! Five causes of Nature-Deficit Disorder; Five challenges for the New Nature Movement. Children and Nature Network.
Louv, R. (2014). Restoring Peace: Six Ways Nature in Our Lives Can Reduce Violence in Our World. Children and Nature Network.
Maniella, F., Agate, J., Clark, B. (2011). Outdoor-based play and connection to nature: A neglected pathway to positive youth development. New Directions for Youth Development, No 130.
McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2013). Fostering sustainable behavior: An introduction to community-based social marketing. New society publishers.
McKibben, Bill. (2010). Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Monbiot, George. (2012). If children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it. The Guardian.
Monke, Lowell. (2004). The Human Touch. Education Next.
Nature Valley. Terrifying Side to Kids Addicted to Technology.
Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI) provides a rich collection of environmental and sustainability-based discussion courses for little cost.
Orr, D. W. (2004). Earth in mind: On education, environment, and the human prospect. Island Press.
Page, A. S., Cooper, A. R., Griew, P., & Jago, R. (2010). Children’s screen viewing is related to psychological difficulties irrespective of physical activity. Pediatrics, 126(5), 1011-1017.
Payne, Kim John. (2009). Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. New York, NY: Random House.
Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M [superscript 2]: Media in the Lives of 8-to 18-Year-Olds. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Robinson, Renee. (2014). A Letter to My Boys (The Real Reason I Say No to Electronics).
Rockwell, C. (Director). (2010). Mother Nature’s Child: Growing Outdoors in the Media Age [Motion picture]. United States: Fuzzy Slippers Production.
Saylan, C., & Blumstein, D. T. (2011). The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It). Univ of California Press.
Sivek, D. J.(2002). Environmental sensitivity among Wisconsin high school students. Environmental Education Research, 8, 155-170.
Sobel, David. (1996). Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
Sobel, David. (2004). Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
Sobel, D. (2012). Look, don’t touch: The problem with environmental education. Orion.
Swimme, B. (2001, May). The Religion of the ad. The Sun.
Tanner, T. (1980). Significant life experiences: A new research area in environmental education. The Journal of Environmental Education. Vol 11, No. 4. 20-24.
Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E., Spencer, C., & Blades, M. (2006). Is contact with nature important for healthy child development? State of the evidence. Children and their environments: Learning, using and designing spaces, 124.
Volmer, Mason. (2015). Growing Gardens, Growing People.
Wells, N.M. (2000). At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘Greeness’ on Children’s Cognitive Functioning. Environment and Behavior. Vol. 32, No. 6, 775-795.
Williams, D. & Brown, J. (2012). Learning gardens and sustainability education: Bringing life to schools and schools to life. New York, NY: Routledge
Young, J., Hass,E., McGown, E. (2010). Coyote’s Guide to Connecting With Nature. Shelton, Washington: Owlink Media Corporation.
“Children come to know a tree by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as important, these firsthand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations–muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air. The computer cannot even approximate any of this.” –Lowell Monke, The Human Touch