The great outdoors — including those wetlands, ocean waters, forests and meadows that surround us — are the original classroom. The science, math and literacy that youth learn from textbooks inside classrooms is enhanced by outdoor learning. Author Richard Louv discussed this concept in his best-selling book “Last Child Left In The Woods,” a part of his effort to combat what he calls a “nature deficit” among today’s youth. When applied to education, the concept is simple: leave no child inside.
Assemblyman Mark Stone has introduced legislation that would help get more youth outdoors to learn. Assembly Bill 1603 would establish a California Outdoor Environmental Education Program under which grants would be awarded to programs operated by public entities or nonprofits. Additional consideration would be given to projects that serve at-risk youth and those that align with Common Core educational standards and integrate instruction in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“In many underserved communities, participation in outdoor environmental education and recreation programs are the only exposure kids have to nature and the environment,” Stone said when the bill was introduced. “Outdoor environmental education provides students with memorable real-world experiences with the environment, which increases interest in science and environmental stewardship.”
Few institutional funding sources now exist for outdoor environmental education even though it has been shown to enhance academic achievement, critical thinking and lifetime environmental stewardship. The grant program established under AB 1603 would supplement other funds that outdoor environmental education programs currently raise from generous individuals, foundations, and businesses.
Studies have documented outdoor environmental education’s positive impact. In 2012, San Jose State master’s candidate Lauren Hanneman studied the long-term effect of O’Neill Sea Odyssey’s free oceangoing science program on students. Her analysis found that 75 percent of youth who participated in the program five to seven years previously had retained knowledge pertaining to nonpoint source pollution which they had been taught.
A study required by the approval of Assembly Bill 1330 authored by then-Assemblyman Joe Simitian in 2003 was commissioned by the State Department of Education in 2005. Entitled “Effects of Outdoor Education Programs for Children in California,” its results showed that low-income students who attended an outdoor education program raised their science scores by 27 percent and increased their concern for conservation. It also found an increase in attitudes toward science as well as an increase in self-esteem, leadership, relationships with teachers, cooperation, and conflict resolution.
You can also find proof of outdoor education’s impact in the stories of students who have experienced it. The next time you see a young person who has had an outdoor learning experience, ask them about it. Their answer will make you a believer, if you weren’t already. AB 1603 will enable more youth to tell such stories about nature’s original classroom.
Kris Beall is a board member of Watsonville Wetlands Watch (www.watsonvillewetlandswatch.org ) while Dan Haifley is executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey.