Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The State of Nature-Based Education

Uncle Sam Green smlRecently Governor Cuomo gave his first State of the State address and President Obama delivered his third “State of the Union.” New endeavors, or a new year, are popular times to “take stock and look forward”. As we begin to build programmatic structure for the Adirondack Interpretive Center, where natural history and ecology are a foundation of our content, it seems appropriate to consider the State of Nature-based Education.

Nationally, nature-based experience – formal and informal, rural and urban – is increasingly recognized for the critical role it plays in the healthy physical and mental development of children and the on-going health of adults. This role is being supported by peer-reviewed research from diverse academic fields, including medicine, education and ecology.

More significantly, the consensus forming around the importance of “getting outside” is drawing together a broad coalition of professions seeking to raise the level of importance and value our society places on playing and learning outdoors – all with the goal of improving the health and quality-of-life of our children.

The research, and Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods do a good job of connecting the dots, which keep multiplying. Getting kids outside is not just about increasing understanding of basic natural history, the process of science, or conservation literacy, though all important goals in their own right.

Getting children outside is magnitudes more important: For example, outdoor play has significant positive impacts on academic performance and classroom behavior. Dots along the academic line connect to decreased symptoms of ADHD, which connects to decreased classroom disruption, and by immediate extension increased learning. This connects to increased learning for other students in the class, increased teaching efficiency and effectiveness, and ultimately higher class and overall school performance.

On another line of dots, health, children who play outside are significantly less likely to be obese. Obesity in the US is literally an epidemic, significantly impacting life-long health, in turn causing an enormous impact on the cost of healthcare (and taxes). But it goes even further, obesity connects to national defense. When a coalition of retired armed forces leaders call for change because 27% (!) of American youth are medically ineligible to serve in the military you begin to see the forest beyond the tree.

There are many ways we must address this issue, what Louv called Nature Deficit Disorder, but getting outside and interacting with nature – from the community garden in a former vacant lot to a walk in the wilderness – nature is still the cheapest, more powerful approach we can bring to bear.

On a national level the importance placed on outdoor and nature-based experiences is on the rise, from the First Lady’s efforts to state Environmental Literacy Plans to the Children and Nature Network, and myriad places in between.

The situation in New York is more complex, and the subject of my next post.

Paul B. Hai is the Program Coordinator for SUNY-ESF’s Northern Forest Institute and is developing the programming for the Adirondack Interpretive Center.

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Paul B. Hai is Program Coordinator for the Northern Forest Institute for Conservation Education and Leadership Training of the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF).

Paul is passionate about creating interdisciplinary programs using natural history, inquiry-based activities and outdoor experiences as the foundations for teaching the process of science, exploring the Adirondack experience, and for getting children outside. This commitment to using informal science education as a vehicle for reconnecting children to nature is a key programmatic theme of programming at ESF’s Adirondack Interpretive Center.

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