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Bill seeks to teach kids the ‘power of the outdoors’

Bipartisan legislation aims to expand environmental literacy in children across the U.S.

Democratic Sen. Jack Reed and Republican Sen. Susan Collins have introduced environmental literacy legislation dubbed the No Child Left Inside Act.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed and Republican Sen. Susan Collins have introduced environmental literacy legislation dubbed the No Child Left Inside Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The New Jersey Turnpike may be the first thing that comes to mind when the Garden State is mentioned, but its students are pretty well-educated about the environment thanks to a 2020 change in state learning standards that added climate change to the curriculum in all schools, at every grade level and in all subject areas.

A bipartisan group in Congress would like to extend that type of environmental literacy across the nation, under companion bills introduced in April dubbed the No Child Left Inside Act.

The idea, according to Senate sponsor Jack Reed, D-R.I., and co-sponsor Susan Collins, R-Maine, is to authorize about $100 million for grants to “fund educational programs that aim to get children outside” and to “promote professional development for teachers on how to integrate environmental literacy and field experiences into their instruction.”

The House sponsor, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., believes educating kids about the environment could help the country solve some of its most pressing problems, encourage more careers in science and conservation, boost overall academic performance and, most importantly, improve the physical and mental health of today’s youth.

The bills were referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee. 

“There are so many pressures coming at young people these days, and the research shows that that’s contributing to higher stress levels,” Sarbanes said. “I certainly think that one antidote to that stress, whether it’s being caused by climate change or overuse of social media or gun violence … being connected to the outdoors is a wonderful way to respond to that and in a sense build resilience and mental health.”

‘A very remedial effect’

This spring, the EPA issued a report stating that “children are especially vulnerable to a variety of health effects from climate change due to physical, cognitive, behavioral, and social factors,” with the effects ranging from increased cases of asthma and Lyme disease to reductions in academic achievement. And a poll released in April found that young adults surveyed between 2015 and 2018 believed climate change “would pose a serious threat within their lifetime.”

“We have a generation now that is inheriting an extremely complex set of environmental problems,” said Rich Innes, a senior fellow at the Meridian Institute, a Washington nonprofit that works with the National Environmental Education Foundation. NEEF, established in 1990 by a law Innes helped move through Congress as a Senate staffer, works with the EPA to distribute grants for environmental education programs, but the funding today is only around $9 million a year.

Innes said much more is needed. “Getting kids out into nature has a very remedial effect,” he said. “Nature is one of the best ways to heal and reduce the anxiety a lot of children are feeling.”

Recent surveys show that only about 8 percent of school districts around the country say they’re using some money for environmental education, said Sarah Bodor, director of policy and affiliate relations for the North American Association for Environmental Education, which works with all 50 states to develop programs.

“The research shows [students] might only be getting a couple of hours of environmental education, where you’d really like to see them having multiple meaningful experiences over the course of a school year for maximum impact,” she said.

New Jersey template

Bodor points to New Jersey’s program as a model for what can be done. The state’s Education Department says in a description of its student learning standards that the focus on climate change is “leveraging the passion students have shown for this critical issue and providing them opportunities to develop a deep understanding of the science behind the changes and to explore the solutions our world desperately needs.”

The addition of climate change to standards of learning in 2020 was the brainchild of the state’s first lady, Tammy Murphy, who noted at the time that New Jersey was seeing shrinking shorelines, torrential rainstorms and extreme heat in the summer.

“Decades of short-sighted decision-making has fueled this crisis and now we must do all we can to help our children solve it,” she said in a statement. “This generation of students will feel the effects of climate change more than any other, and it is critical that every student is provided an opportunity to study and understand the climate crisis through a comprehensive, interdisciplinary lens.”

Students themselves are driving the move toward more environmental studies, Bodor said. 

“There are so many student groups that are really pushing for change and understand that their schools have kind of let them down in terms of helping them understand this problem better,” she said.

Asked whether environmental studies might be viewed as another “woke” issue, similar to LGBTQ acceptance and critical race theory that provoke attacks from the right, Bodor said: “We do hear from time to time that this is an attempt to indoctrinate students with a particular ideology about environmental protection.

“But it so far hasn’t really risen to the level of CRT and some of these other hot-button issues,” she said. “We certainly hope that it won’t. We really feel very strongly that this type of education doesn’t teach kids what to think, it’s really trying to help them understand how to analyze a problem and identify a solution.”

Sarbanes said summer visits to Maryland’s Eastern Shore when he was young, fishing and crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay, linked him early in life to “the power of the outdoors.”

The nine-term lawmaker said he is hopeful the No Child Left Inside Act will have broad, bipartisan support.

“I think we can navigate some of these shoals of partisanship and continue to push this idea forward,” Sarbanes said. “It’s a way to give our young people a breather from these devices that they’re plugged into for hours and hours a day. If we can develop early on the habit and comfort of being in nature, kind of experiencing that, getting away from technology for a little while, that’s kind of a lifelong learning opportunity that you can build on.”

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