We know that having had exposure to nature as a child makes you a healthier adult—both mentally and physically. Several scientific studies have proven that outdoor time boosts kids’ classroom performances, enhances their imaginations and attention spans, decreases their aggression and helps them to grow lean and strong. And just as importantly, children who spend time in nature regularly are shown to become better stewards of our environment when they grow up.
But a recent survey, conducted by the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, found a concerning issue regarding opportunities for getting the young outside and involved in the outdoors. The survey’s results showed that out of 1,000 outdoor-education programs for K-12 students nationwide, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) are in danger of folding, never to reopen their doors, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these programs are provided by nature centers, outdoor-science schools, parks and zoos. In addition, this deprivation—as with so many other hardships—will be felt disproportionately by low-income students and students of color.
Is there a way to mitigate the loss and fill the gap?
Changed childhoods and curbed concentration
Even before the coronavirus spread around the world beginning in January 2020, the nature of childhood had changed. Over the last few decades as American youngsters moved their activities indoors, the childhood obesity rate doubled and concentration, creativity and social skills declined, accompanied by an incremental hundred-billion-dollar cost to our health-care system.
Children were losing big-time. According to a 2010 National Wildlife Federation report that cites 26 separate scientific studies and titled Whole Child: Developing Mind, Body, and Spirit through Outdoor Play, getting kids out into nature raises their levels of vitamin D, helping to protect them from future bone problems, diabetes, heart disease and other health issues; is widely effective in reducing ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) symptoms; lowers stress levels; and makes them nicer, enhancing social interactions and close relationships.
And, say researchers from New York’s Cornell University, the most direct route to caring for the environment as an adult is participating in “wild nature activities” before the age of 11.
Cuts to crucial outdoor time by COVID-19
Funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted in partnership with the California Environmental Literacy Initiative’s Ten Strands and the North American Association for Environmental Education—organizations that focus on bringing environmental education to all K-12 students—the recent University of California, Berkeley, survey collected 1,000 responses from 49 states and the District of Columbia. The majority of survey participants were from nonprofit organizations (62 percent) and public/governmental entities (35 percent). These associations serve a wide range of learners, in areas that include community building, conservation, environmental justice, environmental literacy, science, social/emotional learning and career, job skill and youth development.
The study’s authors estimated that by the end of May 2020, about 4 million kids had missed the opportunity to engage in such programs. In addition, the authors predicted that by December 31, 2020:
• some 11 million kids who would have been served by 1,000 organizations will have missed environmental and outdoor-science learning opportunities;
• about 60 percent of them will be from communities of color or low-income communities;
• the 1,000 survey participant organizations will have lost about $600 million in revenue;
• about 30,000 employees from these organizations will be laid off or furloughed;
• 37 percent of these organizations in California and 30 percent nationally will not reopen; and
• more than one-third of the outdoor-education field—up to 65 percent—will likely have disappeared, eroding a key component of the nation’s education infrastructure.
This loss of outdoor education could have a potentially catastrophic impact, and it couldn’t come at a worse time. Just as public health leaders were promoting the value of outdoor learning as effective, engaging, essential and safe in this time of worldwide pandemic, it is being significantly curtailed. Resource-strapped organizations will need to forego initiatives to promote equitable and inclusive workplaces and even, perhaps, to halt community partnerships, fee waivers, scholarships, subsidized programming and transportation grants in favor of paying customers, which could lead, once again, to the exclusion of low-income students and students of color.
Continuing the education and creating future conservationists
There are ways to help stem the losses, however, through coordination of efforts between local and state education agencies and by setting funding priorities. Some ideas include redeploying public/governmental and nonprofit outdoor educators to work in K-12 school settings to increase the capacity of the schools to teach students, while following social-distancing guidelines. Or, in reverse, other partnership arrangements could expand the space limits of schools by using outdoor-education organizations’ venues, which would allow more parents to return to work and provide educational, health and social benefits to students.
The survey authors also suggest that financial aid be preferentially allocated to those in marginalized communities to prevent the loss of gains made toward broadening participation in outdoor-science education and to achieve greater cultural relevance, equity, inclusion and social justice.
Outdoor learning certainly plays a significant role in meeting education and societal goals. One way to help the children in your life continue to learn about nature and develop their skills as environmental stewards is to have them participate in Natural Habitat Adventures’ Daily Dose of Nature webinars. During these weekday sessions, guides—more than 150 of them—from around the globe share conservation updates, reports from the field, wildlife insights and nature photography tips. It’s one of the best ways to bring nature learning into your home and to your kids.
Richard Louv, author of the popular book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, perhaps put it best when he wrote:
“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,