Presidents View: Greening Our School's Curricula

Environmental education expands students' minds, health and happiness

  • Collin O’Mara, President & Chief Executive Office
  • Conservation
  • Sep 28, 2015

DEVELOPING A DEEP, LASTING LOVE OF WILDLIFE AND NATURE in children requires providing regular exposure to the outdoors accompanied by loved ones or teachers who help kids interpret what they see. Most of us know that such experiences contribute to health and happiness; now a growing body of research shows that environmental education incorporating frequent contact with nature has a positive impact on children’s cognitive development as well—increasing attention span and improving memory.

Such studies demonstrate that environmental education paired with outdoor experience is an American necessity. Hands-on experiential environmental education improves student achievement, particularly aptitude for science, technology, engineering and mathematics—the very skills our children will need to compete in the modern workforce.

Getting Students Outdoors

With your support, the National Wildlife Federation and our state affiliates are helping students receive these kinds of environmental-education experiences nationwide. To date, more than 8,300 schools participate either in our Eco-Schools USA or Schoolyard Habitats® programs. Together these programs expose more than 2 million children to regular time outdoors.

The Federation is the U.S. host for the Foundation for Environmental Education’s international Eco-Schools education program, which includes 50,000 schools in 59 countries and reaches 19 million students and more than 1 million teachers. Since we began hosting the Eco-Schools USA program in 2008, more than 3,300 schools have signed up. These schools receive high-quality curricular modules, a learning network with other participating schools, and best methods for promoting sustainable living. The program is growing particularly rapidly in the New Jersey and New York region (see Eco-Schools Teach Eco-Living) as well as in cities such as Atlanta, Austin and Houston. Within five years, we hope to expand the effort to 30,000 schools and reach 20 million children.

We also are working to grow our Schoolyard Habitats program, which helps schools create habitat for native wildlife. Recently, the 5,000th school completed its certification, and we hope to increase that number dramatically in the next few years. Studies have quantified several remarkable effects schoolyard habitats have on students, ranging from improving grades and expanding subject-matter knowledge to encouraging positive attitudes and respectful interpersonal relations.

As we work to improve school curricula and increase access to nature, we’re also collaborating with the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to implement the North American Conservation Education Strategy, an effort that provides a road map for introducing students to the outdoors and outdoor recreation—while maximizing the intellectual enrichment such experiences provide. In addition, we are working with local governments and schools nationwide to improve outdoor playgrounds by incorporating more natural elements as well as encouraging child-care centers to make outdoor play in nature a higher priority.

Given the many challenges we face as a nation, both environmentally and economically, such initiatives are more important than ever. By participating in environmental-education programs in outdoor settings, our kids will be smarter, healthier and happier—and we will be able to rest assured that the wildlife and wild places we love are in good hands. Thank you for generously helping us make this vision a reality.

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