Good News in Environmental Education

     If you share my concern that kids today are spending too little time in the great outdoors, take heart!  I, for one, am feeling extremely encouraged by the growing interest I see in environmental education.   Momentum is building for making outdoor learning an integral  part of school curricula.    And if Congress passes the No Child Left Inside Act, the states will receive major funding to provide high quality outdoor learning for students of all ages.

     One particularly exciting environmental ed program is reaching hundreds of middle schoolers in west-central Minnesota.  In Fergus Falls, local fourth and fifth graders spend a significant chunk of each school day at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center (PWLC) located nearby.  PWLC is a 330 acre site that includes native and restored prairie, wetlands, and several miles of trails.  The town, state, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are all involved in the Center, in some way, explains Ken Garrahan, the Center’s Visitor Services Manager. 

     Depending on the season, the students may catch and band ducks, study snow crystals, observe new growth, and much more.  “The students are outside every day ” notes Garrahan, ”directly experiencing the prairie wetlands and the many changes taking place as the seasons change.”  

     Garrahan reports that the students are affected by their daily outdoor activities.  After about a month, he explains, they seem to slow down, to feel more comfortable outside, to notice more, and to be willing to wait patiently for things to happen.  “They tend to see themselves more as explorers or scientists,” he says, “and less as middle school kids.”

     The positive changes carry over to the classroom as well.  “Teachers tell me,” says Garrahan, “that the students exhibit a more cooperative spirit, a greater gentleness with each other, when they are engaged in outdoor activities on a regular basis.”

     The students’ growing knowledge of the natural world seems to have a positive effect on the students’ performance in their academic subjects.  For example, the students’ writings become more rich over the time they participate in the program, Garrahan observes.  In fact, the students involved in the PWLC program fare as well as or better than students who have not participated in the program, when it comes to standardized tests in academic subjects, says Garrahan.  These test results should allay the fears of many adults who believe that students need more, not less time inside the classroom.

     I hope environmental education programs like the one in Fergus Falls will become available to students all over the country.  Passage of the No Child Left Inside Act (HR 3036)will be a great step toward that goal.  And support for the bill is strong.  The House Committee on Education and Labor passed the bill by a wide margin in June, and the whole House may vote on the bill later this summer. 

     A growing coalition of more than 300 organizations, representing tens of millions of people, is working to enact the legislation.  For more information about the No Child Left Inside Coalition, just click on the link below.

2 Responses to “Good News in Environmental Education”

  1. Jim Z. Says:

    Our local city parks and rec. department offerred a new summer program to anyone who would “walk” at least 40 of the city’s parks (it is a city of around 140,000) between June 1 and July 31. It was a way of getting people around town to see parks they never knew existed, and to provide an incentive to be outdoors. The city gave out small booklets to fill in (date walked, etc.) with the address of ea. park and a map. Each page has a question to identify some unique feature of each park so that people had to actually go there to answer the question, e.g., how many swings are there, or some detail about a park sculpture, or what public facility is on the NE side of the park – a fire station, etc.

    We’ve been taking our grandkids around each morning to visit anywhere from 1 to 3 parks at a time. At the end you get a T-shirt and attend a free picnic to celebrate the achievement. Been in our town for 28 years and never knew that many of these parks existed, or ever visited them.

  2. April Says:

    What a fun-sounding project! Someone in your municipal government had a great idea. I hope a lot of people are taking the opportunity to discover more local parks than they ever knew existed. Sounds like a fine idea for other cities to try also.

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