‘No Child Left Inside’—the Solution to Your Child’s Ecological Illiteracy?

Natural areas needn’t be deep in the wilderness—even urban parks can be used to teach kids valuable eco-lessons.

A staff writer for LiveScience, Doug has written for the NYTimes.com. He lives in New York City.

How do you get kids to care about the environment? Take them outside.

It may sound like common sense, but a recent study found that taking kids to natural areas is incredibly powerful at teaching them—and making them care—about the environment, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE last week.

Minority students seem to benefit even more than white students from environmental education classes that involve visiting natural areas. This kind of immersion helps them gain relatively more ecological knowledge and cognitive skills than their counterparts, said Nils Peterson, study co-author and a researcher at North Carolina State University.

"The minority students got more out of outdoor education than others," he said. "It could be a feasible catch-up strategy" for minority students, who tend to lag behind in environmental literacy, he added.

The study didn't try to answer why this might be. However, one intuitive possibility is that since many minority groups simply don't get as much exposure to nature, they get more out of it when they get that chance, since it's new to them, he said.

The study looked at sixth- and eighth-grade students in 34 North Carolina classrooms, 16 of which enrolled students in environmental education programs, and 18 which did not (acting as a control). It found that the "programs really do work" at improving environmental knowledge, attitudes and behavior, said Kathryn Stevenson, a co-author and doctoral student at NC State.

The most effective teachers had between three to five years of experience in the subject, Peterson said. As expected, teachers get better after their first few years. Perhaps surprisingly, however, teachers tended to be less effective after more than five years. Although the researchers don't know why, it could be that teachers begin to run into more conflict with administrators, who often don't encourage environmental classes, or view it as an unnecessary add-on, he said.

Student age also had a minor impact on how well the classes went. Sixth graders learned faster than eighth graders, according to the study. For that reason, "having initiatives at younger ages is critical," Peterson said.

The kids benefitted just from being outside, regardless of activity. Also, natural areas needn't be deep in the wilderness; even urban parks can be used to teach kids valuable lessons, Peterson added.

The results are encouraging because taking kids outside is relatively simple and needn't be overly costly, especially since natural areas aren't necessarily far afield.

Environmental literacy is made up of four factors: factual knowledge and understanding of natural processes, attitudes about the environment, cognitive and analytical skills, and behavior. All areas must be developed for a person to be "environmentally literate"; caring about climate change doesn't necessarily lead a person to change their behavior, Stevenson said. She spent two years as an outdoor educator, four years as a high school biology teacher, and is now trying to figure out what makes people care about the environment.

There are many environmental education programs, which were generally found to be affective, with names like Project Learning Tree, Project WET and Project WILD. Most states have environmental education programs, and interested teachers can find more information from their state's website.

There is currently legislation pending before Congress (called "No Child Left Inside") which would provide some funding for environmental education classes throughout the country, Stevenson said. She and her colleagues hope that it may pass once Congress gets around to considering it, although it's unclear when that might be.  

Peterson is cautiously optimistic about the state of environmental education, which he sees being embraced and taught by more teachers nationwide, but slowly. "It's very underfunded and under-supported," he said. "I think it's growing and getting more attention, but it's doing so against the odds."

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