As I was reading through this week’s chapters and articles, I kept thinking back to one of my favorite places that really exemplifies a thoughtfully built environment. IslandWood is an outdoor education campus located on over 250 acres on Bainbridge Island. During the school year, IslandWood hosts an outdoor education program for urban school children, engrossing them in a brief but impactful outdoor experience that encourages lifelong environmental stewardship. During the summers, they offer weekly camps themed around nature. The campus features an outdoor garden where kids can harvest vegetables and use them to make a pizza, a Living Machine that recycles over a thousand gallons of wastewater each day, and immeasurable design features that minimize the environmental burden of the buildings serving as classrooms, dorms and gathering spaces.
Currently, outdoor education is not mandatory nationwide. States can require it as part of their curriculum; several states, such as Washington, Oregon and California, have done so. Some, however, offer heavily truncated versions, or rely on non-profits to provide the resources for their programs. Many states still lack any type of environmental or outdoor education programs in their curriculum whatsoever. This is unacceptable.
Especially for those who grow up in urban environments, ties to the natural world are increasingly becoming scarcer. Without access to and appreciation for the environment, it’s much easier for a child to grow into an adult who doesn’t think critically about how their actions impact the Earth. Studies have shown that environmental education has lead to increased environmental sensitivity and stewardship, and makes children more likely to pursue the sciences when they grow up. In addition to the environmental benefits, there are co-benefits to outdoor education programs. Research has shown that outdoor education can significantly boost children’s self-esteem, problem-solving skills and cooperation. Increased outdoor interaction is also associated with an abundance of health benefits, both mental and physical.
To take advantage of these benefits, outdoor education needs to gain traction around the country. It’s unreasonable to expect similar programs to IslandWood to manifest out of nothing – outdoor education should be made mandatory at a federal level. That said, it will require significant support and political lobbying to make nationwide outdoor education programs a reality.
In order to facilitate this, legislators need to bring forth bills that require outdoor education. But even before this, their constituents need to make sure legislators know that this is something they – and their children – want. Environmental and health-focused non-profits need to widely publicize the health benefits of outdoor education so that parents are aware of what their kids are missing. Kids need to be advocates as well; national advertisements featuring testimonials from students have completed outdoor education might help to convince a student in the state over to tell his teachers and parents that he wants that experience, too. Perhaps non-profits like IslandWood could develop phone apps that have environmentally focused games that encourage students to notice the nature around them and get them more interested in outdoor education programs.
Until federal law mandates outdoor education, states have an obligation to pull together funding to create programs themselves, following the lead of states that have already done so. As more states adopt these policies, hopefully the federal government will take notice and ensure that all states are providing their citizens with adequate outdoor education.