Every so often at the Eugene Public Library, Family Day is dedicated to teaching kids (and their parents) about nature and the environment in Eugene and beyond. Kids get excited to learn about plants and animals they can find all around them. Beth Stein, executive director of Nearby Nature, a local nature camp, often comes in to the libraries to help kids interact with and understand the surrounding environment.
The library fills up with children and parents eager to learn about local animals and the environments of Eugene. Children’s librarian Claire Ribauld says that children always seem excited to learn about the environment in hands-on and engaging ways.
The North American Association for Environmental Education believes that early environmental education encourages young students to understand and create connections with their natural surroundings. As someone deeply invested in the environment and educating children on the intricacies of nature, Stein says that for young students, “it’s good to spend unstructured time outside and not just at desks in front of computers.”
She also says that students should be able to “use all of their senses to experience the world.” Education should be about more than just learning facts and figures, but also about experiences and hands-on knowledge.
Stein has used her passion for children, the environment and education to good use by being involved with Nearby Nature and inspiring children all over Lane County to learn more about their environment. She believes that students should have the opportunity to go outside and experience nature for themselves to understand it.
Elementary schools in the Eugene area, like Bertha Holt Elementary, have basic environmental-focused activities and lessons for their students. Bertha Holt Elementary Principle, Kevin Boling, understands the importance of educating students early on about the environment and tries to have as many hands-on activities for students as possible.
Among the activities students participate in are field trips to farms and Mt. Pisca, activities with Nearby Nature in Alton Baker Park, raising salmon to be released in a local river and a very successful recycling program. In the 2010-2011 school year, the school managed to recycle 2,695 pounds of milk and juice cartons.
“Environmental education absolutely is important,” Principle Boling says, “in order to have adults sensitive to environmental needs, we need to develop habits early on.”
It is not an uncommon belief that environmental education should be taught in schools at an early age. Drew Thompson, a University of Oregon senior majoring in environmental studies, shares Stein and Boling’s sentiment that young students need to be exposed to the environment early on. He also believes that environment science should be taught through out elementary school. “It’s essential for kids to learn about sustainability and the environment and how to take care of it,” Thompson says. Thompson also mentions that in one of his classes, they discussed how in the Japanese education system, sustainability is a required subject from elementary school to high school.
In “The Importance of Environmental Education at the Early Childhood Level,” an article written for the International Journal of Environmental Education and Information in January 1993, Ruth A. Wilson, who has written several books on early childhood education, writes that experiences with environmental education “play a critical role in shaping life-long attitudes, values and patterns of behavior toward natural environments.”
Wilson also writes that children living in urban areas should not be targeted for environmental education. Wilson is under the assumption that, regardless of where they live, recreational activities for children are mainly indoors and that children are “essentially isolated from direct contact with the natural world.”
A proponent of hands-on learning about the environment, Wilson believes that hands-on education early on can reduce the “risk of never developing positive attitudes and feelings toward the natural environment or achieving a healthy degree of competency on the environment.”
Studies have shown that hands-on learning has been the most effective in engaging young students with nature and the environment. While more urban area potentially have a higher need for more focused environmental education, Wilson has a point in stating that urban areas should not be targeted for environmental education. Areas like the Pacific Northwest, despite having an abundance of surrounding nature, should not be neglected when developing focused environmental education.
Physical location does not have to have an effect on the quality of environmental education. Being in a more urban location is not a deterrent in integrating environmental education in schools. For schools in more urban areas that might not have the same level of access to nature, Stein suggests bringing nature in to a classroom as an alternative. Bringing things like bird feeders and bugs in to a classroom are great alternatives if there is not easy access to a community park nearby. “There’s always something alive around you!” Stein claims.
Environmental education at a young age is important, not only because it helps to foster a connection with nature and the surrounding world, but also to increase student achievement in other subjects. Research shows that students who have engaged in hands-on environmental education as children do better in sciences and have enhanced critical thinking and basic life skills.
In 2000, the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation published a report entitled “Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21 Century.” In this report, it is stated that environmental education offers an excellent opportunity for students to “acquire knowledge and gain skills such as problem solving, consensus building, information management, communication, and critical and creative thinking.” The formal education system, according to the National Science Board, should be changed to help students and educators learn about the environment as it “relate[s] to all academic disciplines and their daily lives.”
The No Child Left Inside Coalition, funded by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has also found that when environmental sciences are integrated into a variety of curricula, there is a positive correlation with improved reading and math abilities. There have also been increased achievements in other unrelated subjects. Beyond affecting a child’s capacity to learn, No Child Left Inside has stated that in schools with integrated environmental science curricula there is a reduction in discipline and classroom management problems, increased in-class engagement and enthusiasm from students and that students take greater pride and ownership for their accomplishments in the classroom.
Environmental education is an area of learning that has been proven to affect several aspects of a child’s academic success. Various studies and research have shown that environmental education for children is important for more than just informing students about sustainability. The effects that environmental education has on other aspects of academic success should be a driving force in integrating environmental education in schools.
Sustainability is an important topic around the globe, not just in the United States. To keep the planet healthy and livable for future generations, sustainability needs to be prioritized globally.
Since 2000, the Japanese education system has had sustainability as a required subject from primary to upper secondary school. Instead of being taught as its own standalone subject, it is integrated in to a variety of other curricula.
The integration of sustainability in Japan’s basic school curricula allows for teaching and learning activities to be used in the classroom to further understanding of a variety of topics. Among those discussed are health and welfare education and international understanding.
As a principle in an American elementary school, Kevin Boling thinks that sustainability is a difficult concept for elementary-aged students to grasp. Rather than focus on sustainability like Japan, Boling emphasizes the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle concept.
Environmental Studies student, Drew Thompson, on the other hand thinks that an integration of sustainability in early education could be a great tool in developing knowledge and interest in the environment early on.
Japan’s integrated studies system serves as a foundation for Education for Sustainable Development, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization initiative adopted in 2003 to further understanding and development of sustainability education. The already integrated sustainability education had essentially laid down the groundwork for when ESD started.
Japan’s national curriculum emphasizes a change in students and teachers’ “own lifestyles, values and behaviors beyond knowledge transfer, simply for the protection of nature.”