A Greener Future

Recreation's Push to Address 'Nature Deficit Disorder'

By Dawn Klingensmith

back-to-nature movement to acquaint today's obesity-prone, technology-obsessed youth with the outdoors and the environment as a whole is gaining momentum nationwide. Calling for a "child-nature reunion," the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv points to kids' sedentary, indoor lifestyle as a cause of the childhood obesity epidemic and cites studies that suggest engaging with nature reduces kids' loneliness, depression and inability to concentrate. In its wake came the proposed No Child Left Inside Act of 2007, introduced in both Congressional houses in October, which would provide funding for environmental education in public schools.

It's not surprising, then, that Recreation Management's 2007 State of the Industry Report found that developing environmental education programs was a top priority among parks and recreation departments. More than 10 percent said they are planning to add such programming over the next three years.

To the extent that environmental education programs get kids moving in the outdoors, these initiatives could go a long way toward improving kids' physical and mental health. But kids' wellbeing isn't the only reason parks and recreation managers cite in their push to incorporate environmental education into their programming. The planet's well-being also is at stake.

Education Leads to Action

In a letter requesting funding to hire staff to develop environmental educational programs, Bill Hellwig, director of the Audrey Moore RECenter at Wakefield Park in Annandale, Va., stated: "As our population increases and our natural resources continue to be stressed, it is important to educate our youth on the role they play and changes that can be made now. Our parks are the ideal setting to develop that understanding. We have streams, trails, wildlife, trees and meadows with staff trained to respect nature and the effect humans have on the environment. We can teach our youth to be better stewards of our resources; they will become our future park users and advocates."

Hellwig's last sentence reveals yet another compelling reason for park managers in particular to develop environmental educational programming. If the national park system's attendance rates are any indication, the well-being of parks in general might depend on a renewed appreciation of what nature has to offer. Attendance at national parks has dropped in six of the past seven years, from 287 million in 1999 to 273 million in 2006.

Widely regarded as a possible remedy for "nature deficit disorder," environmental education overlaps the separate but related outdoor education movement, which shares similar aims. Simply put, outdoor education refers to organized learning that takes place outside. Both movements seek to foster an appreciation of nature. Ultimately, the goal of environmental education is to foster an awareness of environmental issues and problems, modify behaviors that exacerbate those problems, and develop the motivation and skills to solve them.

Wondering, Wandering

The environmental and outdoor education movements trace back to the publication in 1956 of Rachel Carson's magazine article "Help Your Child to Wonder," later published in book form as The Sense of Wonder. Chronicling outdoor adventures with her 20-month-old nephew, Carson introduced the concept and importance of environmental education, as well as its characteristics at the early childhood level. Today, organizations such as the North American Association for Environmental Education and the Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education set standards for exploring the complex relationships that exist among humans, the built environment and nature.

When children are the target audience, environmental education should include hands-on investigations; reveal real-world applications of the subject matter; recognize and appeal to different learning styles; develop critical thinking skills as well as creativity; take an interdisciplinary approach; and make use of immediate natural surroundings.

It is often the case, too, that environmental education programs develop muscles as well as minds and could therefore counteract childhood obesity. For example, programs offered through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada take place over the course of mile-long hikes enabling kids to witness firsthand animals' use of camouflage, geological formations and other natural phenomena.

Areas of Exploration

A course of preparation for environmental stewardship at any age includes learning in the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities to foster students' understanding of the complex world around them and their place in it. Areas of coverage might include:

  • energy
  • land
  • water
  • weather
  • biogeochemical cycles
  • evolution
  • food webs
  • minerals
  • soil
  • atmosphere
  • climate
  • biodiversity
  • extinction
  • habitats
  • aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal communities

  • Examining human interactions with natural systems will give rise to global issues such as:

  • population
  • manufacturing
  • government policy
  • technology
  • transportation
  • agriculture
  • construction and development
  • renewable and nonrenewable natural resources


    Starting Close to Home

    A child's understanding of the world is constantly expanding, so environmental education should begin by connecting children with their immediate surroundings and regional ecology and then gradually move outward to address global issues. Such an approach is possible even in an urban environment such as Chicago, where the park district offers free, seasonally themed Nature Oasis programs designed to introduce people of all ages to the surprisingly complex ecology of the city's green spaces.

    The Department of Recreation and the Division of Parks and Open Space in Brookline, Mass., offer a similar program called Nature Explorations, a fee-based series of eight classes, each of which takes place at a different park or sanctuary. "In this community, there's a pretty strong focus on toddlers—they're too young for kindergarten but old enough so parents are looking for opportunities to get out of the house with them," said Environmental Educator Christine Dean.

    Offered year-round, Nature Explorations programs cost $140 for each adult-child pair and focus on environmental themes such as plant cycles and animal behavior while developing kids' observation, classification and counting skills. By design, the programs take an interdisciplinary and multi-sensory approach. Each class incorporates movement and a craft; for example, a course on how animals prepare for the winter incorporated a game of charades, and in a course on urban critters, the children made squirrel costumes out of brown grocery sacks.

    "Involving all five senses keeps children engaged and hits on different learning styles," Dean said. "Some kids are tactile and need to feel and touch. Others can't sit still and need to explore."

    Environmental education also can occur through self-guided exploration and unstructured play. With corporate funding support, Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City established a Children's Garden intended to introduce children to formal horticulture as well as native species in their natural environment. A snake maze consisting of a framework covered with vines is one of many play features designed to "get kids up close and personal with plant life," said Patrick Newman, director of programs.

    Red Butte Garden also offers an array of formal education programs including Cooking in the Garden, which demonstrates real-life, everyday applications of horticultural knowledge. Aspiring Emerils prepare simple meals using garden-fresh ingredients and compile recipe books to take home.

    Sowing the Seeds

    Environmental education programs needn't start out on a grand scale. There are simple ways to get started that don't require a substantial investment. For example, Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kan., offers scavenger-hunt and animal-trivia sheets at the ticket booth to enrich kids' learning experience and promote family interaction. Red Butte Garden provides backpacks containing educational materials, suggested activities and craft-making supplies.

    "You don't have to develop formal curricula," said Rachel Soash, Sunset Zoo's curator of education. "It's sufficient to have a staff person on hand to talk about animal camouflage and other topics. Every season there's something new to learn, so every season brings new programming opportunities. Nature never gets boring."

    Facilities with successful environmental education programs emphasized the importance of hiring full-time staff devoted to the cause. "It's essential in developing quality programming," Newman explained.

    Red Butte Garden also relies on its volunteers for chaperoning and other assistance. "All of our programs are completely dependent on their help," Newman said. "When a school bus comes and 65 kids come pouring off, that's more than one or two staffers can manage on their own."

    Educational Allies

    Experienced environmental-education providers also emphasized the importance of partnerships. From its inception, Red Butte Garden has been affiliated with the University of Utah, so education has been central to its mission from day one. But the facility has since forged partnerships with institutions such as the Utah Museum of Natural History, which share promotional and programming expenses. Partnerships also enable the botanical garden "to cast a larger net in terms of whom we can reach and whom we can educate," Newman said.

    Partnering with public schools to offer programming that meets state curriculum standards can help parks and recreation departments in soliciting grant and government funding. After receiving a series of grants from the Utah State Office of Education, Red Butte Garden—which offers outreach programs to area schools, including supplies for classroom projects on such topics as seed germination—now automatically receives a "big chunk of money" each year for its efforts, Newman said. Funding for its environmental education programs is written into the state budget as a line item.

    Seeking out public-private partnerships has paid off for the Chicago Park District, which in 2002 received $1.5 million over three years from corporate sponsors Exelon and ComEd. The sponsorship funded the restoration of several Chicago natural areas; installation of more than 200 interpretive signs throughout 50 natural areas; and the expansion of environmental education programs, including Nature Oasis and Outdoor Explorer programs and a summer job program in which teens take part in planning and maintaining city gardens.

    The park district also partners with nonprofits to offer environmental education programs for adults. For example, volunteers from the Chicago Audubon Society lead fall-migration bird walks, and local gardening clubs facilitate lectures and workshops on such topics as native plantings and backyard biodiversity.

    Guidelines for Excellence

    The North American Association for Environmental Education has established
    the following guidelines and standards for environmental education:

    Fairness and accuracy: Materials should be fair, balanced and accurate in describing environmental issues and conditions and in reflecting the diversity of perspectives on them.

    Depth: Materials should foster an awareness of the natural and built environment; an understanding of environmental concepts, conditions and issues; and an awareness of the feelings, values, attitudes and perceptions at the heart of environmental issues.

    Skills building: Materials should build lifelong skills that enable learners to address environmental issues.

    Action orientation: Materials should promote civic responsibility and encourage learners to use their knowledge, personal skills and assessments of environmental issues as a basis for environmental problem solving and action.

    Instructional soundness: Instruction should be interdisciplinary and learner-centered; acknowledge different ways of learning; connect the material to learners' everyday lives; and be appropriate for the setting.

    Usability: Materials should be well-designed and easy to use; clear and logical; adaptable; substantiated; and in accordance with national, state or local curricula requirements.

    The Bottom Line

    With an annual budget exceeding $385 million, the Chicago Park District has the luxury, perhaps, of focusing on the non-monetary rewards of offering environmental education. "If you help people develop an appreciation for a park, if you encourage them to see it in a new way, they'll utilize it more and take care of it," said Peggy Stewart, the district's manager of outdoor and environmental education. "You're developing the next generation of stewards of your local parks, which from my perspective is priceless."

    Other parks and recreation departments take a more pecuniary approach born of necessity. When the town of Brookline, Mass., agreed to match grant funding awarded to its recreation department over two years for the development of environmental education programs, it did so with the expectation that fee-based programs would be self-sustaining after the two-year period.

    The Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia takes a business-minded approach, as well. "In order to keep offering quality programs led by trained, qualified interpreters, you need to be able to drive some revenue from them," said Judy Pedersen, the park authority's public information officer.

    Themed birthday parties with an environmental education component can be counted on to generate revenue or break even depending on how many favors the facility provides. And summer camps are money-makers because there's always a need for childcare in the summer, she said.

    An annual festival and ongoing adult-education programs, such as gardening classes, offered jointly through the University of Utah are reliable revenue generators for Red Butte Garden, Newman said.

    Learning Curve

    In offering free programs, the Chicago Park District has found that no-shows can be a problem at events where space is limited. There might be a waiting list for a fishing event, for example, "but the day of, there are kayaks sitting empty," said Stewart, who has started allocating staff time for making reminder calls to registrants.

    At Sunset Zoo, one of the greatest challenges is reaching middle- and high-school students, in part because "they're so busy with sports and cheerleading and homework and their social lives," Soash said.

    When regularly scheduled after-school offerings failed to attract this demographic, the zoo developed a flexible Zoo Crew program allowing teens to help care for the animals on set days of their choosing.

    "It's critical to span all ages," Soash said, adding that it's important to address the special needs of adults and seniors.

    Brookline's recreation department offers a fall and spring series of interpretive nature hikes for older adults, which are advertised through area senior centers. "Some come for the exercise, some come for birding, some come to socialize, which are important programmatic components for this age group in addition to providing information about the natural history and geography of the area," Dean said.

    Adult learners prefer to have a hand in shaping their learning experience, so program facilitators should ask up front what participants hope to achieve. And more so than children, adult learners are concerned with the immediate applicability of newly acquired knowledge, so folding environmental education into a skill-development course might engage them more effectively. For example, Brookline's recreation department offers a digital photography course led by a nature expert in the outdoors, where participants identify and discuss flora and fauna while learning techniques to capture the colors and textures of the autumn season.

    As with children, programs aimed at seniors should offer multi-sensory experiences in the event that participants' eyes and ears aren't what they used to be.

    By reaching every age group with environmental education, all of these facilities help grow interest in building a greener future.

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