My son is a over a year away from kindergarten, and my daughter is a just over a year old, but I'm already paranoid about finding the “right” school for those formative years of education, especially since I'd like to send my kids to a school that's in line with my green lifestyle. And before you think I’m crazy, consider the fact that for many private schools in my area, it's practically essential for kids to attend pre-K at the school to ensure a spot for grade school. As for the neighborhood public school? Parents have to camp out for over 24 hours beforehand (in frigid Philadelphia January weather) to try to ensure that their kids have a spot for kindergarten. So all of this had me thinking - I've got to figure this out sooner than later. And what did I find? Schools are lacking in environmental education and teaching kids about nature.
What Does the “Right” School Entail?
For every kid, it could be something different, but I know that we likely all want our children to receive basic information about how to be concerned and conscientious citizens. Most of us don’t have the ability, flexibility, or patience to homeschool our kids, so what can we do to emphasize that they are learning about nature and the environment, along with how to preserve it while learning in a more traditional school environment?
Besides, what are the really important things to learn? As I think about my own public school experience which began in the late 80s and went through all of the 90s, I’m sure that it reflected a common experience. Home ec was a total joke; trig and advanced sciences were de rigeur for anyone considering a “good” college. When I consider the ratio of how many times I have had needed to know how to sew (toys, clothes, anything our dog happened to decide to destroy) or cook, versus how many times I have needed to know a sigma curve, I have to wonder: what are all of these tests, standardized curriculums, and initiatives really leading too?
If you ask Charles Saylan and Daniel T. Blumstein, authors of The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It), the answer is: they’re not leading to the things that matter.
Why Nature Needs to Be Part of the Curriculum
Saylan and Blumstein’s book is yet another title that has come out citing the importance of getting our kids to respect and enjoy nature. The focus this time: developing that awareness in schools. As a parent preoccupied with green living, my kids will obviously know the ins and outs of recycling, choosing walking or biking over driving, and purchasing local and seasonal foods from the farmers’ market and CSA. But, just as I expect my lessons on reading to be supported at school, I want my environmental messages to be reinforced. Scratch that. I want more than that from my children’s school. I want the environment and related issues to be incorporated into every subject. Is that too much to ask? For the (numerous) kids who don’t have eco-friendly parents, they have very little opportunity to learn even the basics of nature, especially if they live in an urban environment. How can we expect kids to grow up and become responsible stewards of the Earth if we don’t offer them the opportunity to explore, problem-solve and learn about it?
The authors point out that we can no longer afford to “choose” to be an environmentalist. Just like grade schoolers don’t get to choose to learn whether or not they learn long division, they should also not be given the option to learn how to treat our planet with respect. One of the problems that Blumstein and Saylan see is that the existing environmental education often teaches kids about the problem without giving solutions, creating a feeling of helplessness. Liza Mendel, co-founder of Green Apple Kids, a New York non-profit that offers after-school programs and weekend workshops at community centers on environmental education, believes in the importance of finding a curriculum that mirrors the development of how a child learns. Green Apple Kids’ innovative program allows kids to learn about their bodies as a “first environment” through yoga, breathing, and nutrition, and then branches out to larger, big picture topics including water conservation, clean energy and roof gardens.
How to Incorporate Nature Curriculum
Getting kids on board is a great way to start progress from within and can be accomplished with basic, fun-to-learn, hands-on activities. For example, Blumstein and Saylan state that there should be gardens at every school and at every grade level and that working in them should be part of the curriculum. Schools (public, private, charter, and more freeform) have all adapted gardens as an exciting starting point for environmental awareness.
These sound like great ideas, right? It’s the “part of the curriculum” element that gets tricky: environmental education is not exactly one of the subjects emphasized by the No Child Left Behind Act. In many schools, there are environment clubs or after school elective programs, but does that result in a “preaching to the choir” situation in which kids who are already interested in the environment choose to participate in these programs (or are encouraged to do so by green-minded parents)? We need all kids to understand that they share in the responsibility to take care of our earth.
It’s not just the “essential” subjects that could benefit from the integration of environmental lessons. Over the past few decades, despite the obvious growing need to kids to be reunited with the natural world, most schools have lessened their amount of outdoor recess and physical education. The loss of arts programs is another untaped opportunity to experience nature as well: kids could make crafts using found material from outside or get a lesson in plein air painting. And what about field trips to farms (urban or rural) or animal sanctuaries or recycling centers? These experiential, educational outings seem to be an endangered species due to the focus on test preparation, yet they allow kids to learn by seeing and doing, instead of just reading. They also offer the opportunity for kids to ask questions and find alternative role models.
What Parents and Teachers Can Do
The focus in public schools appears to have gone in a different direction than what our kids instinctively know that they need – time to run, play, pick up rocks, lay on fields (even if it is a freshly mowed soccer field!). I have friends who report that even their first grader has at least an hour of homework every night. And whether it is at school or at home, kids are often in front of a screens, since many school districts have begun giving laptops to their students. Teachers are given much less time to explore the interests of the kids in their classes, instead they must focus on a curriculum based on getting acceptable, if not exemplary, test results.
So where does that leave our children, not just as budding environmental activists, but also as global citizens? As Mendel puts it, “We want to teach the next generation to be holistic people, not just good test takers.” Saylan and Blumstein believe that it is the teachers who need to take the lead. I agree that they are integral to the process, but I think more emphasis also needs to go to the parents. We need to express the importance of these issues to administrators. We need to pool our eco-knowledge and spread it during the school day: purchasing a class plant and providing information on how to take care of it and how it helps to purify the air or explaining how when we buy an organic tomato at the farmer’s market we are supporting the farmer, the local economy, and the Earth’s health. Parents have been successful catalysts of change on school-related issues from healthy lunch offerings to safety: effective environmental education is an area we cannot afford to sit back and wait on.
We want to hear from you. What are some of the positive efforts that teachers, parents, school systems have made towards learning about and caring for the environment? Whether your child goes to a traditional school, an alternative school, or is homeschooled, what are some ideas and already-implemented plans that will have our kids thinking about more than just what’s on a test and to promote environmental intelligence?
Lead Image © flickr user Renato Ganoza