Ken Plum: Children and outside learning

kenplum2Research highlights the benefits of outdoor and environmental education for children–ranging from increased academic achievement, improved social skills and interest in school, and boosted health, according to environmental education leaders who have organized NoVA Outside: An Alliance of Environmental Educators ( I attended their School Environmental Action Showcase last week at George Mason University, and I was impressed by the students and their projects. The Showcase is like a science fair but with the emphasis on environmental science.

I am pleased with the progress that has been made in recent years to incorporate more concepts into children’s learning experiences about the environment. Author Richard Louv sounded the alarm back in 2005 when he wrote about a “nature deficit disorder” negatively affecting children because they were spending less time outdoors and the school curriculum was not dealing with the subject. According to the National Environmental Education Foundation (, children have lost 25 percent of playtime and 50 percent of unstructured outdoor activity over recent decades. More than one in three children is overweight or obese with all the associated problems. In children as well as adults, outdoor exercise improves mental and physical well-being.

But it is more than just being outdoors; it is also knowing about the earth on which we live. Virginia went through a period about 20 years ago when a very conservative state school board deliberately went about taking out any “environmentalism” from state science standards of learning. We seemingly are past the worst of that narrow view and recognize the linkage among science, the world in which we live, and our actions as individuals and their implications. Environmental educators are doing a good job of hitching onto the latest education fad–STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)–and demonstrating how the study of the outdoors and the environment support the emphasis on STEM.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered this perspective in a public service announcement for Environmental Education Week. “We know so many of the jobs of the future are in the STEM fields, and there are so many great ties between STEM education and environmental education,” he said. “If we really want to keep those good jobs in this country, if we want our students prepared–I think there’s no better way to start to get at that, whether it’s in 2nd grade or in 11th or 12th grade, than to get kids out in the outdoors with environmental education.”

Children continue to have a higher level of concern about the earth and the environment than adults often do. The students’ exhibits at the Showcase showed that awareness as did their projects that demonstrated what we can do to be good environmental stewards. These students learning outdoors will be better leaders in cleaning up the world we adults are leaving them.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia General Assembly.

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