Guest blog post by Patrick Deavy, National Environmental Education Foundation.
This holiday season, a family hike or quick trip to a local park could offer more than a chance to escape the hustle and bustle. A new survey conducted by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) shows signs that these family outings may also be an important opportunity for parents to talk to their teens about the benefits to more outdoor time. The survey, which examines how teens across the country interact with the outdoors, finds parents, along with teachers, are their top sources for information about the environment. The survey also confirms what many parents and educators may already observe: today’s teens spend little time outdoors.
According to NEEF’s 2017 Teen Benchmark Survey, less than a quarter (23%) of teens frequently spend time with friends outside. Most teens (80%) say they prefer to spend time indoors, even though they recognize that time outdoors makes them healthier (92%) and happier (88%).
NEEF has a vision that by 2022, 300 million Americans will actively use environmental knowledge to ensure the well-being of the earth and its people. Fostering a deeper connection to the outdoors among today’s teens—who are also our future leaders—is a critical piece of this work. Parents and teachers can play an integral role in strengthening that connection, with nine in 10 teens citing them as trusted sources of environmental education.
As we work to inspire people to learn about their relationship to the environment, we hope findings from the NEEF 2017 Teen Benchmark Survey will empower parents, educators, and others who directly influence teens to increase their efforts to engage young people in more activities that get them outside and learning about their environment. Together, we are helping teens find a balance with their use of technology and getting outdoors. By forging a stronger connection between teens and the environment, we can ensure the well-being of the next generation and our world.
This holiday season, help us get #iGenOutside. Visit www.neefusa.org to learn more. Or, to access graphics and other resources to help share survey findings, access the Youth Survey Toolkit here.
– Interview with Jason Morris, Pisces Foundation, by Jackie Ostfeld, Outdoors Alliance for Kids
The Pisces Foundation is working to advance strategic solutions to natural resource challenges and prepare the next generation by supporting environmental education. Pisces believes if we act now and boldly, we can quickly accelerate to a world where people and nature thrive together. Pisces mainstreams powerful new solutions to support innovators who know what it takes and are doing what’s necessary to have clean and abundant water, a safe climate, and kids with the environmental know-how to create a sustainable world.
I asked Jason Morris, Environmental Education Senior Program Officer at the Pisces Foundation, to share his thoughts on where the movement to connect kids with the outdoors is heading. The Pisces Foundation is a new supporter of OAK and we’re honored by their commitment to the field. Enjoy the interview here.
Jason, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your own interest in environmental education. Why is this field important to you personally?
For me, like many in the environmental education field, nature has shaped who I am and what I do.
When I was 12 years old, I lived for the summer. I would fish in the canal by my house, care for the animals on my family’s farm, and explore the wonders of the natural world as often as I could. I remember one of my first camping trips into Rocky Mountain National Park. It was right after the first snowfall of the year. My family stumbled upon a huge meadow, where it seemed like every elk in the entire world had gathered. I was mesmerized. I stood there and stared as they grazed and mingled. For a moment, I felt like part of the herd. I was completely struck by an overwhelming feeling—awe. This story, among thousands of other experiences I’ve had in nature throughout my life, stands out to me. I share this story because feeling awe, even for a moment, can truly shake the foundation of what we believe.
As a kid, I yearned to be in nature as often as possible. Growing up, I always hoped to experience the natural world, at home, at work, and at play. I have made it my life’s work to ensure that more people, at all ages, get to experience the benefits of nature—and not just in the summer!
Tell us about the hopes and dreams the Pisces Foundation has for environmental education?
At Pisces Foundation, we believe that when kids gain the environmental know-how they need to thrive in a rapidly changing world, we’ll see smarter decisions, stronger communities, and daily actions that improve their well-being and our planet. Environmental education is a proven way to get kids more engaged in learning and active and healthy outdoors. We see that more and more schools, states, and communities are tapping into the many benefits that come with environmental education and making it a part of every child’s experience. Our hope is that every child receives the benefits of environmental education. Environmental education is not a one-time event. It’s a series of life experiences that allow children to grow into adults who embrace responsible behaviors in order to make smarter decisions about the world. Research has shown that the benefits of environmental education can be immediate and long-lasting.
With so many pressing environmental challenges, like climate change, why is it also important for environmental organizations and the philanthropy community to invest in environmental education and getting kids outdoors?
I’m glad you asked this question, because it’s important to think of environmental education as an immediate investment as well as an investment in our future. Environmental education leads to gains in conservation, education, health and wellness, social justice, and youth development. Many of these benefits improve our communities and our planet today. And, kids who experience environmental education can grow up to be responsible, well-prepared citizens, ready to make the choices and decisions necessary to solve the pressing environmental challenges of tomorrow. We know that the sooner we act, the sooner we see the benefits. Solving environmental challenges and investing in environmental education are not an “either-or” division. They are important “both/and” investments that mutually reinforce one another. Both are integral components to get to the point where people and nature can thrive together.
On behalf of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids, I cannot thank you and the Pisces Foundation enough for investing in our mission to advocate for equitable and readily available opportunities for children, youth and families to connect with the outdoors. As we enter our first year of collaboration with Pisces, do you have any advice for OAK and our alliance member organizations on how we can work together to expand and improve not just access, but equity in access, to the outdoors and outdoor learning opportunities for children and youth?
Research has shown that environmental learning levels the playing field, across gender and ethnicity. We know that outdoor experiences improve children’s self-esteem, leadership, and character. We know that unstructured play outdoors improves mental and physical health. We know that environmental learning sticks with kids more than traditional learning, that it stokes interest in science, and that it sparks the curiosity that makes kids better learners. We know all of this, yet the average American child spends 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.
What we need is to connect children with nature. Not just some children—all children. Every child not only deserves access to nature, every child requires it. In order to deliver this to every child, we can no longer imagine nature only in the iconic treasured landscapes. To give every child the opportunity to form a lasting connection with nature, we must find nature nearby. We have to re-imagine what and where nature is. Through environmental education, we can give all kids the opportunity to experience the world that left me awe-struck as a 12-year-old. Whether it’s in a meadow watching a herd of elk, or in a city park staring up at a big oak tree, or in their own backyard discovering the joy of nearby nature, environmental education delivers.
How did you get outdoors with your family this summer?
My wife, daughter, and I spent an amazing week along the Metolius River in eastern Oregon. Surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness, we wandered along the banks of the river, canoed across a stunning mountain lake, and biked through the sun-drenched massive pine forest. A perfect opportunity to boost our spirit and nourish our passion for wild places.
Every Kid in a Park – Youth Blog Series, Post #5
Interview with Nicole, incoming 4th grader and Every Kid in a Park pass recipient
Nicole is an incoming 4th grader at Harmony Hills Elementary School in Montgomery County, Maryland. Interviewer, Isabel Argoti, introduced Nicole and her family to the Every Kid in a Park program and they are excited to participate in the program this school year. Nicole shares with us her excitement about the outdoors and her sentiments about the program.
What is your name, age, and where are you from? Nicole: My name is Nicole. I’m 9 years old and will be attending Harmony Hills Elementary School.
What do you love about the outdoors and nature? What do you like to do outdoors? Nicole: I like all the colorful plants that are around me and how beautiful nature is. I like to take a short walk with my dogs and playing basketball with my mom when we have free time.
Have you visited Rock Creek Park or some of the other national parks or monuments around Washington D.C.? If so, what did you like about them? Nicole: I went to the Martin Luther King Jr. monument it was so cool because it was my first time seeing it.
What about to parks such as Shenandoah National Park? (shows photos) Nicole: No I haven’t.
Well did you know that with your Every Kid in a Park pass you could visit these sites plus hundreds of others, with your Every Kid in a Park pass for free this upcoming school year? How does that make you feel? Nicole: Excited and happy because I get to see and experience a place I’ve never seen or been to.
That’s great! Who do you think you will go visit these parks with? Nicole: I will be visiting with my family –parents and sisters.
What does being in the outdoors and enjoying nature mean to you? Nicole: Hanging out with my family and friends. It’s a break and escape from what we usually have to do.
Do you think all kids your age should receive this pass to visit national parks? Why or why not? Nicole: Yes because everyone needs to know about nature and learn more about it. I also think they should know about the program [because] some kids are always on their phones, video games, and TV.
I totally agree, Nicole! Any last comments or anything you’d like to say about the program? Nicole: Yes, in my opinion I think the government should support the park [and program]. It helps other kids to learn more about nature. I also think that the government should give more money to the park to keep them clean, nice, and beautiful. And also to have lights everywhere so people can go to the park until night time!
Nicole attends a Title I school where over 80% of the students participate in the Free and Reduced Meals (FARMs) program, over 40% of the students are English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) learners, and 90% of the students are either Hispanic or black. Nicole and her family have never visited large national parks before, but they hope to do so now with Nicole’s new Every Kid in a Park pass. Nicole is a first generation student in the United States and her family is originally from Ecuador.
Every Kid in a Park – Youth Blog Series, Post #2 Interview with Evie E. & Louise R., former Every Kid in a Park pass users
Evie E. and Louise R. are both rising sixth-graders at Creative Minds International Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. They were both invited to speak at OAK’s Congressional Lunch Briefing on July 11, 2017 to talk about their experiences outdoors. Before the event, they were interviewed by Isabel Argoti, OAK/NPS Community Assistance Fellow, and Katie Brantley, Sierra Club Digital Storytelling Fellow. Evie and Louise’s speeches given during the briefing were recorded live.
What’s your name, age, and grade?
Evie: I’m Evie and I’m 11 going into the sixth grade.
Louise: And I’m Louise, also 11 and also going into the sixth grade.
What do you love about the outdoors and what do you like to do outside?
Evie: Outdoors is peaceful and relaxing, and you can think about stuff. And it helps things grow, which it also helps us grow. Like vegetables.
Louise: I like the feeling of being independent outdoors, where you can just free-roam and explore and discover new plants and insects and animals.
Where did you get your Every Kid in a Park pass?
Louise: We went on a school trip and they handed them out. It was the US Arboretum.
Evie: There was also another school there.
Which parks have you been to?
Evie: Assateague Island National Seashore, Rock Creek Park, and Prince William Forest Park.
Louise: C&O Canal National Historical Park, National Mall, Rock Creek Park which is really close to my house. And Prince William Forest Park.
What did you like to do there? What was your favorite part about your visit?
Evie: At Prince William, we actually went camping there with our class in cabins. And at Rock Creek, I like to go hiking.
Louise: Me, too. Sometimes with my family, we’ll go on a family hike because it’s so close to our house. And sometimes we’ll walk along the C&O Canal and hike along the rocks.
What advice do you have for a future fourth grader who is about to receive their Every Kid in a Park pass?
Louise: Try to get your parents to have the family travel somewhere far. Also let the pass be a reminder to you to get outdoors even if it’s not a huge national park.
Evie: I have two sisters–one of them had the pass last year and the other is getting the pass this year and so I think my advice would be to look through the book or website when you first get the pass. Try to choose a park that is the farthest away from you so you can go on a long road trip and so you can find stuff that wouldn’t be in a park nearer to you, so you can learn new stuff and discover new, fun, exciting things.
The school trips in which Evie and Louise received their passes were sponsored field trips by the National Park Trust. The National Park Trust, a 501(c)(3) non profit, is dedicated to preserving parks today and creating park stewards for tomorrow, and is an incredible supporter of the Every Kid in a Park program. Since 2009, the Buddy Bison School Program and national Kids to Parks Day have engaged 3,000,000 students across the country with our nation’s parks, public lands and waters (ParkTrust.org).
This is the second in a series of blogs highlighting students who have used, or are gearing up to use, their Every Kid in a Park pass.
Celebrating “Every Kid in a Park” granting free National Park Passes to all 4th graders nationwide!
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Photo: National Park Trust
The super-tall, super-lean, super-endurance runner Dylan Bowman is bent over a bunch of outdoor gear – warm jacket, rain layer, etc – rolling up each item as tightly as possible and stuffing them into a backpack, demonstrating to a group of wide-eyed 4th graders how to pack a backpack for a day hike.
He leans in and asks this small group of eight or so kids from Hoover Elementary School in Oakland, California: how many of you have ever gone hiking? Two of the eight kids raise their hands. Just two.
North Face global athlete Dylan Bowman teaching about packing a backpack. Photo: National Park Trust
I don’t know why I find that number surprising. I suppose it’s because I live and breathe the outdoors and I’m surrounded by like minded enthusiasts both in my community and online. But once I reach out of my comfort-bubble-zone, I remember the stark reality that most kids in the United States don’t have my kind of access to the outdoors and don’t get to go to parks beyond their local, neighborhood park.
That’s why last week’s event at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, which brought together 60 students from Oakland to enjoy a day of outdoor games and exploring and was sponsored by a powerful partnership of outdoor-kid-evangelist players, is so vital and touching.
The official 4th Grade Pass to all U.S. National Parks.
Each and every one of these 60 – 4th graders was proudly given a National Parks Pass to hang around their necks, as if receiving an Olympic Medal, for their entire family to have free access to all of America’s public lands and waters for the entire year, an initiative funded by “Every Kid in a Park” which launched out of the White House last year. And to support and celebrate that initiative, The North Face Explore Fund, The Outdoors Alliance for Kids, The National Park Service and The National Park Trust have all banded together to create this event and similar events around the nation.
Teaching a group of eager 4th graders how to set up a tent. Photo: National Park Trust
Why is this so important?
“Too few children have opportunities to explore and enjoy the natural world and programs like this are critical to ensuring all kids can visit their public lands,” explains OAK Co-Founder and Chair, Jackie Ostfeld. And she’s right. By providing free access to our nation’s great and treasured parks, this initiative helps alleviate a piece of one the barriers, a financial one, and allows more families to play in the outdoors which in turn brings about a healthier, more active population overall.
Senior Director of Outdoor Exploration at The North Face, Ann Krcik aptly adds, “through the Explore Fund grants, we are building a community of outdoor explorers and inspiring people to love and protect the places where we play.” This is key. This is vital. By introducing this giant population of 4th graders and their families to the Parks every year, we are creating stewards for wild places and green spaces for generations to come.
North Face athletes mixing it up in the backpack relay race with some giddy 4th graders. Photo: National Park Trust
So now we circle back to our super-athlete Dylan Bowman and this diverse group of wide-eyed kids hanging onto his every word. The “backpack relay race” starts and each kid is gleefully rolling up gear and smashing it into the backpack as fast as possible to beat the other team of classmates next to them, racing back and forth, gear and bodies flying everywhere.
It’s this kind of giddy joy that helps tells the story of why getting these kids access to the outdoors is so important and why so many groups are making this their mission.
Let’s all grab our backpacks and jump on board. To the summit!
Connecting children with nature has a myriad of benefits that are receiving national attention. Research tells us that children who spend time in nature are more creative, less stressed, better able to concentrate, physically more active … and the list goes on. Because of this growing body of evidence, many schools, early childhood centers, and other programs serving children are striving to create and maintain nature-filled outdoor spaces for children.
Researching ways to support whole-child learning and the role of learning environments was the original focus of Dimensions Education Research Foundation. As our study pointed to the critical role of nature-filled environments, Dimensions began researching how children learn with nature. Our partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation to create the Nature Explore program was formed and we have spent over a decade working with organizations to bring more nature to children’s daily lives through our workshops, outdoor classroom design process, and natural materials.
Over those years of designing and supporting Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, we have seen sites with thriving outdoor classrooms and also seen some outdoor classroom sites that were clearly struggling. As a research organization, that prompted us to ask a number of questions: How do you keep people excited about utilizing and maintaining these nature-based learning spaces? How can these spaces be more sustainable? Can we identify characteristics that the thriving outdoor classrooms have in common?
Those questions led Dimensions Foundation to conduct a two-year, national outdoor classroom sustainability study. Our researchers purposefully picked a mix of sites from diverse locations representing various types of organizations including schools, early childhood programs, and nature centers. Results of our sustainability study showed the positive impact of Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, especially when they weave together the connections between the child, supportive adults, and the environment. Once the research was analyzed, six indicators emerged as key characteristics of thriving, growing, and sustainable outdoor classrooms.
1. Integrate Missions
Integrate nature and outdoor discovery play into the philosophy, program goals, and mission of the organization. When the outdoor classroom was seen as an integral program component and when that philosophy was shared with educators, staff, parents, and other stakeholders, it became a foundation from which the team could work. Many of the successful sites found the outdoor classroom to be a differentiator that led families to select their program or organization.
2. Structure Leadership
Successful sites were those that had created a process, from the beginning, for supportive, shared leadership and care of the classroom that was not reliant on just one person. The decision-making process was clearly established … including a system for evaluation and modification of the space, materials, and experiences. Staff and families were also informed and involved.
3. Inspire Staff
Sites that made staff development a priority and regularly provided training to engage and motivate staff to incorporate nature into their daily programming with children had much more robust outdoor classrooms than those who did not. Staff trainings included shared expectations for safety, ways to document children’s learning outdoors, and ideas and support for rising above challenges. Many successful sites engaged staff by encouraging them to work in groups using individual staff’s unique interests and skills as they related to the outdoor classroom.
A number of sites talked about the importance of sharing successes in keeping staff involved and inspired. Sustaining the outdoor classroom takes hard work and commitment. Taking time to share stories and celebrate children’s accomplishments, teachers’ insights, and new discoveries emerged as being important for on-going staff engagement.
4. Involve Families
Successful outdoor classroom sites involved families often in the planning, creation, and maintenance processes that were created and used consistently. Family members were surveyed for interests and skills they might have in creating or helping to maintain the outdoor classroom. The thriving sites worked hard to help families understand the value of children learning with nature and provided simple tools, like the Nature Explore Families’ Club, and ideas that supported parent-child-nature engagement at home. As a result, many sites reported shifts in parents’ attitudes and actions. Families were making lifestyle changes in which frequent interactions with nature became a priority at home. As Vicki Bohling Phillipi, Licensed Parent Educator at Forest Lake Family Center in Forest Lake, Minnesota, which has a thriving Nature Explore Classroom, said, “Parents long for permission to opt out of the hectic programming of life and just spend some time without an agenda. They need to see how this can happen in their already frenzied and over-programmed lives. Get them to actually step foot on the space and see that the Nature Explore Classroom is a place where fun and meaningful learning takes place. Help them experience the benefits of spending time with their children outdoors themselves. They need to re-light their own candle before they can do it for someone else.”
Some sites began building family engagement through simple things such as having parents pick up children in the outdoor classroom at the end of the day so they could see their children engaged in new ways outdoors, hosting school or group events in the outdoor classroom, or starting a family nature club. Keeping families informed about what was currently happening in the outdoor classroom as part of regular program communication was also important in keeping families engaged and involved.
5. Build Community
Sites reported that, although it takes work, they found tremendous benefits from partnerships that they were able to build among education, non-profit, corporate, and public-sector individuals and organizations to help create and maintain their nature-based outdoor classrooms. Many local and regional organizations include community greening as part of their mission, and successful classroom sites were able to connect and partner with groups who could support them with funding, volunteers, trees, and plant materials. One example came from Melissa Stenger, Assistant Principal at Beard School in Chicago, Illinois, who said, “Considerable effort is made to ensure that Beard’s outdoor classroom remains a thriving, beautiful space for exploration and learning year round; shared responsibility with partners allows this to come to fruition. During periods of non-attendance, school families and staff members voluntarily rotate the responsibility of watering and weeding to ensure that the plants and garden are cared for.”
Successful sites not only connected with supportive community partners, they also provided orientation for volunteers and found ways to recognize and celebrate their volunteers and partners. These efforts resulted in on-going collaboration and support.
6. Foster Caretaking
Dr. Wayne Dyer writes, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” The thriving outdoor classrooms reported that they framed the on-going maintenance of the outdoor classroom as an opportunity, not a problem. These sites established regular maintenance schedules and involved children, educators, families, and even community members in caretaking activities on a regular basis when possible. In addition, regular replenishment of frequently used materials, and on-going maintenance considerations were factored into their annual budget.
Effective, thoughtful design of the outdoor classroom was also a critical part of caretaking. Good design, incorporating durable materials and low-maintenance native plants, has a big impact on the amount of maintenance the space will require from the very start.
Keeping your outdoor classroom growing does take intentionality and effort but the rewards for your whole program are significant. Moreover, the experiences young children have in these spaces can transform their lives. More in-depth information from the sustainability study, as well as real-world examples from our Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms, can be found in the book, Keeping it Growing – Sustaining Your Outdoor Classroom (Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, 2012).
About the Author
Susan Wirth has close to thirty years in the education field working with children and families. Susan currently serves as Outreach Director with Dimensions Educational Research Foundationand the Arbor Day Foundation. Her work focuses on the collaborative Nature Explore program to help reconnect young children with the natural world. She has authored articles in NAEYC’s Young Children magazine and Head Start’s Children and Families magazine. She has presented at the National Association for the Education of Young Children national annual conferences and Professional Development Institutes, been a keynote presenter for National Science Teachers Association (CESI/NSTA) and many state AEYC groups, and also has spoken at Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), North American Association for Enviornmental Education (NAAEE), and National Head Start Conferences. She was part of the NAAEE team that wrote the nationally accepted Early Childhood Environmental Education Programs: Guidelines for Excellence and serves on the Natural Start Alliance Advisory Board.
One of the nature play areas featured in the guide is at Silver Falls State Park in Oregon, a nature play area designed around a wildlife habitat theme. The play area is a quarter-mile loop of adventure pods. Children can climb a tree, growl like a bear, hide out in a cougar’s den, weave a bird’s nest, and look for tracks. “From the beginning of the design process Oregon Parks and Recreation Department wanted this to be a nature inspired space for kids,” said Michelle Mathis, designer of the nature play area and a contributor to the guide. “So often we are asking families to drive to a park, hike to look at the park’s beautiful scenery, then walk back (while leaving no trace). One of the main goals of the design was to create opportunities for sensory engagement with nature. We wanted to create a lasting bond between the kids and the park.”
A Chance for Kids to Reconnect Nature
Nature Play & Learning Places is a project of the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Learning Initiative at the College of Design, North Carolina State University. The guidelines draw from principal author Robin Moore’s extensive landscape design experience, case studies of 12 existing nature play areas across the country, and the contributions from the members of a national steering committee and a technical advisory committee, which consisted of representatives from more than 20 national organizations.
The project was funded by the US Forest Service. Children spend almost 40 hours a week on digital devices, and half the time outdoors than they did 20 years ago. Nature play areas are an innovative way to reconnect kids with nature and build a lifelong bond with wildlife. “Nature play and learning places are an innovative and fun way to connect families with our public lands,” said Fran Mainella, former director of the National Park Service and a visiting scholar at Clemson University. “They can help us improve children’s health and learning and encourage appreciation for wildlife and natural systems.”