Educational experiences that create awareness and connections between personal actions and the natural world are helping kids to develop perception and values regarding their environment. Schoolyard Habitats, the program that provides grants to create green spaces on school grounds, shows that when kids have informative experiences within the natural world, they begin to understand their own connection to nature. However, these experiences infrequently happen organically as kids stay connected indoors and remain disconnected to the outdoors. “A lot of teachers recognize how little time their students spend outside and how much focus there is on technology. They have an innate understanding of just how beneficial it’ll be to spend time outdoors,” U.S Fish and Wildlife biologist Cindy Corsair said. Those teachers are right.
Studies by the Children and Nature Network, a worldwide initiative to increase children’s access to nature, have increasingly shown that getting outside has benefits for health and wellness. Improved eyesight, healthier bones, higher fitness and subsequently, a reduced risk of obesity are all physical health benefits to be gained from time outdoors. The Rhode Island Environmental Education Association’s (RIEEA) project manager Jeanine Silversmith affirmed, “The benefits of environmental education run from the physical benefits of fresh air, movement and a healthy experience to mental health.” Mental health benefits include reduced stress and increased socio-emotional skills. Learning in natural environments also has correlations to positive academic outcomes such as increased focus, enhanced performances in a range of school subjects, and an overall increased enthusiasm for learning. Not to mention, the Children and Nature Network points to spending meaningful time in nature during childhood as one of the biggest factors that contributes to environmental stewardship in adulthood.
Even with all the positive impacts of immersing kids in the outdoors, environmental education is no longer just about getting back outside and instilling a simple appreciation of nature. It’s about addressing the looming issue our natural world faces: climate change. Graham Holland, co-clerk of the Sustainability Committee and a 7th and 8th grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence envisions climate change lessons incorporated into the curriculum, starting with a foundation in nursery school that can be built up through their senior year of high school. The committee Holland helps to oversee is composed of teachers, students, parents, administration and cafeteria workers who all sit down and consider what goes on around campus in terms of environmental responsibility. “My goal is to have enough people in the conversation that when they’re in other conversations, they’ll always have that lens to speak through,” Holland said. In 2017, the Quaker private school was designated a Green Ribbon School, distinguished in providing environmental education and reducing environmental impact by the Rhode Island Department of Education.
In terms of educating on climate change, Holland points out that there’s already great stuff happening across the different grade levels. It’s just that no one has catalogued which lessons are taught and when. For Holland and the Sustainability Committee, a curriculum mapping initiative is a key item to work on. They envision a curriculum that starts with foundational knowledge from an early age that’s built upon to form an understanding of the climate crisis, the changing natural world, and the human connection to it. In doing so, Holland wants to consider what educational experiences kids have from nursery to 12th grade as it relates to environmental and climate change awareness. He wonders, “What should our graduates know and understand and have experienced?”
Holland has found that his 7th and 8th grade students are receptive to learning about the topic. While conducting a climate change unit last year, he noted that the students were very thoughtful and deeply concerned. “That’s one of the trickiest things about teaching the subject. I don’t think people really know yet how to do it, meaning what is the right age to start talking to kids about this and in what way and what’s the balance between scaring kids and being honest with them.” Holland additionally points out that addressing climate change in curriculum can be difficult due to the uncertainty of exactly how climate change effects will play out.
Regardless of how things play out in the future, environmental education is playing out in schools here and now. The young environmental stewards of Rhode Island are shaped by the education provided within the school system, whether that be through schoolyard green spaces, gardens or climate change in the curriculum. As a whole, Rhode Island has been successful in integrating environmental education into the classroom, though Tracey Hall of the Rhode Island Audubon Society believes there’s still room to expand. “I think it’s pretty integrated, but we have more to go,” Hall said. “We’re still missing schools, we’re missing populations of kids.” Hall says that the state is starting to see urban schools increasingly take on environmental education programs, a good step toward further integration. And with the recent award of the Schoolyard Habitat Program Grant to Kent Heights Elementary School in East Providence, another school gains access to environmental education and all the academic outcomes, health benefits and future eco-warriors that come along with it.