Thursday, December 16, 2010

Engaging our Wild Side

By Soren Graae

It is clear that many young people through the US and world are interested in engaging with the environment. It is our responsibility to provide young people with opportunities to develop and express this potential. Encouragingly, studies show that many young people have no lack of desire to engage in environmental preservation, education or other outdoor activities. Instead, a number of obstacles stand in the way of participation, including a lack of opportunity, poor infrastructure and lack of support. These are barriers we have the capability to control and therefore should be working to remove. 

Photo Credit: National Public Lands Day
Recently, President Obama launched the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative (AGO) and proclaimed the month of September as National Wilderness Month, a month to celebrate, explore, and preserve the vast history of our nation’s wilderness. Also during September, on one Saturday each year since 1994, is National Public Lands Day—a day devoted to improving and enhancing America’s public lands.

AGO recognizes the importance of fostering a bond between young people and their environment. The President called on government leaders, including the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, to lead the initiative. AGO aims to take a leading role in confronting many of our nation’s most critical environmental concerns. Here are some other examples of US organizations connecting young people with nature.
Just this past November, the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), in partnership with HSBC Bank USA, awarded grants to three Washington D.C. area elementary schools to instigate water saving and environmental education projects. Students will learn about water conservation by installing a water efficient irrigation system in the school garden, employ rain barrels, track rainfall, and compare the data to previous water use habits. This grant will help children learn about water conservation while also making a lasting positive impact on the school itself.

NEEF was established by Congress in the National Environmental Education Act of 1990 as a complimentary organization to the EPA to advance environmental knowledge and action. Its core goal is what it calls “environmental literacy” for America’s children while improving their overall success.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Kids for the Bay, a project of Earth Island Institute, has been teaching environmental science to children and teachers using pro-active hands-on learning experiences for over 17 years. In 2005, it was awarded the EPA Environment Award.

Kids for the Bay instructs teachers on how to use the local environment as an educational resource to stimulate learning, allowing the entire community to work together to achieve common goals for their environment. The Kids for the Bay program aims to empower children with the knowledge and skills necessary to make educated, environmentally friendly behavior changes and to help solve many local environmental problems.

On the east coast, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is also a strong advocate for service-learning for young people. The Foundation recognizes the increased interest being shown in environment-focused service and responded by developing the Oyster Gardening in Maryland program. Opportunities like the Oyster Gardening program offer young people a unique opportunity to learn about the qualities of a fascinating and vital species, while also contributing to its preservation and the marine environment they help to maintain—helping to solidify a connection between young people and nature.

The EPA is actively seeking to incorporate more environmental learning activities into the lives of young Americans. In 2001, the EPA and NEEF conducted a brief survey to determine the “Environmental IQ” of the general public. The findings of the study concluded that most American’s know about certain environmental issues such as the significant impact of the loss of animals habitats or that the majority of carbon monoxide comes from automobiles.

However, only about 25% of Americans surveyed knew what the main cause of water pollution is (surface water run-off from yards, city streets, and farm fields), and only 33% of respondents knew that the US’s primary form of generating electricity was burning coal, oil and wood. Encouragingly, however, most respondents felt that environmental protection and economic development can co-exist, and that the federal government should be spending more on environmental programs. Test your own knowledge about the issues facing our environment here.

Without a connection with nature, how can we expect young people to become responsible stewards of our planet? While many children are outdoors scoring goals, running bases, and exercising, it is important to recognize the need for a more intimate and tangible interaction with nature. Opportunities like the ones mentioned above, in which young people can spend quality time in nature; learning, touching, and contributing to its preservation, allow them to foster an essential bond and appreciation for the environment.

Teachers can weave environmental learning into the classroom curriculum and seek to make it fun and engaging. Policy makers can encourage and support these initiatives through funding, advocacy and coordination. Parents can take our children on hikes through our beautiful National Parks, or participate with along with them in programs like Kids for the Bay. It is the responsibility of our current leaders, policy makers, teachers, and mentors to properly equip those of the future by encouraging these experiential service opportunities in the environment.

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