Imagine a day when humans are so adept at punching buttons and wiggling joysticks that our thumbs evolve to be exceptionally large and brains uncommonly small. Sound like science fiction? Perhaps. But Ira Blumenthal, director of the Captain Planet Foundation, which promotes children's environmental education and literacy, believes humanity is headed in this direction unless children start getting out more.
"If you ask a 4- or 5-year-old where a carrot comes from, they usually say from a grocery store and their mom buys it in a bag," Blumenthal says. "The only way to study the environment is to get outside."
Yet time for outdoor exploration is more difficult to come by these days, especially during school hours. One reason is that many boards of education responded to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 by eliminating social studies, science and recess from curricula. Teachers focused instead on the skills prominent in standardized tests — reading and math — even though research shows that exposure to the natural world helps students develop critical thinking and social skills, and boosts achievement.
In an effort to restore physical activity to the classroom and repair the schism between school performance and environmental education, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland authored the 2007 No Child Left Inside Act, which he reintroduced to Congress on April 22, Earth Day.
If passed, the bill would provide $100 million a year to support environmental education in public schools around the country. It would help train teachers to understand environmental issues, like climate change and water shortages, offer field trips for students, and build capacity within states for increases in both quality and quantity of environmental education curricula. The bill also encourages environmental professionals to teach environmental education.
"The ultimate goal is for the bill to be incorporated into the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [the overarching federal law that funds primary and secondary education] so that environmental education becomes a formal part of the education system," says Sarbanes, who's been involved in resource conservation and wildlife preservation in his home state for years.
Getting children outside may seem like a simple notion, but the implications are vast, adds Brian A. Day, director of the North American Association for Environmental Education, who says that when children become more Earth-savvy, they're better prepared to make wise individual and societal choices.
"In the coming decades, we are going to have to make all kinds of important environmental decisions to do with energy, climate change, green jobs and green economy," Day says. "If people have a real understanding of how our social and natural systems interact, then they're in a position to be able to participate in a realistic way in lifestyle decisions, like which type of light bulb to use, what kind of car to drive, or larger policy decisions."
Day isn't alone in his enthusiasm for the bill's foresight. His association is but one of the 1,000-member No Child Left Inside Coalition, an advocacy group created to help encourage kids to learn about the environment and promote the bill. Supporters hail from all 50 states and range from parent groups and environmental organizations to nature centers and education associations. In other words, an avalanche of support is building.
Last September, the U.S. House of Representatives readily passed the NCLIA with a vote of 298 to 109. It was reintroduced to Congress this spring since it never reached the Senate floor. On June 4 it was referred to the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. In the meantime, the NCLI Coalition hopes to continue garnering support. So too does Sarbanes, who's appealing to members of Congress, as well as the public, for backing.
"We feel very positive about the bill," Sarbanes says. "We ended last Congress with about 70 members of Congress as sponsors, and this time around we have members who are already familiar with the work of NCLIA. We would love the bill to go to the floor and say there are 50 states that already have environmental programs in place. And now the federal government needs to catch up and head in that direction."
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