March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

What Does It Take to Get Kids Outdoors?

Posted: Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

by Lori Merritt

Our environment faces many challenges. Human behavior has greatly contributed to these negative changes. Children will be inheriting a world with many environmental problems and need to be prepared to face them. In order for children to care about the environment and have positive environmental behavior they first need to have experiences outside in natural environments (Chawla & Cushing, 2007; Handler & Ebstein, 2010). Unfortunately, children are spending less time in nature, making them less connected to their natural environment. In Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, nature-deficit disorder is described as “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses” (p.36). In order for our students to be healthy, and environmentally proactive members of society we need to lead them outdoors.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) provide a framework to lead our students outside, where they can engage in science practice by investigating, observing, collecting data, and asking questions. Exposing children to science lessons outside and having positive experiences in nature could be a way to help connect children to nature and influence their attitudes (Monroe, 2003; Schultz, 2001). Plus, they will love spending time outside!

Community Collaboration
As a graduate student I was approached by a group of teachers who wanted help making science come alive for their students. These dedicated teachers were unfamiliar with NGSS and so I started by sharing the grade level standards and linking them to resources. There are still elementary school teachers who are unaware of the new standards and need support in teaching science. Often, teachers without a background in science can feel overwhelmed and need some help navigating NGSS. For teachers who may need support, observing science lessons can be a great way to better understand NGSS.

Lessons Modeled
I planned and modeled four experiential lessons for students; getting outside was an important aspect of the science lessons. I worked with two classes of first grade students and two classes of second grade students in the San Juan Unified School District. The students collected data using quadrant sampling on an abundance of insects in two different schoolyard habitats. Students planted pollinator-friendly plants in existing planter boxes on their campus. They also collected evidence of life forms by drawing pictures, counting, and categorizing wildlife they observed. The teachers were surprised, both at how engaged their students were while making observations outside and at how much wildlife existed on their campus.

After the Initial lessons in the schoolyard, the students also learned about adaptations and designed two different insect patterns on paper butterflies that they played hide and seek with to see which pattern camouflages better and helped their insect survive. Finally there was a walking field trip to a local river where students played nature bingo looking for different features. The teachers associated with this collaboration have expressed excitement about continuing to take their students outside for lessons. They also have increased confidence about teaching outside science lessons. Parents commented that they had wanted to walk their children to the river, but were afraid to before the field trip.
Parents who joined the classes on the hike to the river expressed appreciation for taking their children out into nature and had a greater willingness to take them out on future nature walks.

Leading Children Outside
The experiences these students had may contribute to a lifelong appreciation of nature, science, and stewardship behavior. Empowering adults to lead children outside may be the key to having a larger impact on children’s attitudes and behaviors. Teachers who are familiar with NGSS need to support all elementary school teachers and parents to increase confidence and motivation to do hands-on science, model appreciation for nature, and provide repeated experiences in nature.

Young children connecting to local wildlife is the foundation for further developing environmental attitudes (Sobel, 1996). It is important to give children time to explore their local environment. When teachers do not have the experience or are uncomfortable taking students into nature it is hard to lay that foundation. The key indicators for future environmental stewardship in children are repeated contacts with and experiences in nature, along with positive role models (Chawla, 1999). Families and teachers are young children’s primary role models for appreciating nature (Chawla, 1999). As teachers we need to take the leadership role in getting our students outside and suggesting activities that families can do outside together. Teachers also need support from principals to acknowledge that learning does occur outside. Administration should be made aware of the many benefits to teaching lessons and spending “class” time outside. Teachers need time to familiarize themselves with NGSS standards and time to collaborate and plan lesson outdoors.

Our nation’s administration is leading the way for families to get outside. This year, President Obama has identified the importance of getting children outside in his recent Every Kid in a Park Initiative: in the 2015-16 school year, every fourth grader and her family will have free admission to all national parks and other federal lands and water. Teachers and families can connect students with public lands and find great teaching resources using collaborative websites such as Hands on the Land and the National Park Service’s Teacher Resources.

More time outdoors, at school and at home, will increase children’s exposure to nature. That exposure to the natural world will, in turn, promote a scientific mindset of young explorers. Don’t we want our students to feel connected to nature and have the scientific skills to think about, question, and communicate about the world? Teachers have the power to be positive role models for young children, valuing and inspiring future environmental stewardship. Teachers have the power to lead kids outside. So, let’s get every kid outside!

Literature Cited
Chawla, L. (1999). Life paths into effective environmental action. The Journal of Environmental Education. 21(1): 15-26
Chawla, L. & Cushing, D.F. (2007). Education for strategic environmental behavior. Environmental Education Research. 13(4): 437-452.
Handler, D & Ebstein, S. (2010). Nature education in preschool. Highscope. 25(2): 1-17
Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Monroe, M. (2003). Two Avenues for encouraging conservation behaviors. Human
Ecology Review. 10(2): 13-125.
Schultz, P. (2011). Conservation means behavior. Conservation Biology. 25(6): 1080-1083.
Sobel, David, (1996). Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart of Nature Education, Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society

Lori Merritt is a master’s degree student at Miami University of Ohio and a Parent Participation Preschool Teacher at Caleb Greenwood Elementary. She is a member of CSTA.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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