Greening STEM kids gathered around a tree
©

Benefits of Environmental Education

Environmental education (EE) is often lauded by educators as an ideal way to integrate academic disciplines, stimulate the academic and social growth of young people, and promote conservation of the natural environment.  Just a few of EE’s many benefits are listed below. 

The National Environmental Education Foundation's Health & Environment program has also developed this Fact Sheet on Children's Health and Nature, discussing the role of nature in combating childhood obesity, asthma, and other health concerns.

Studying EE Creates Enthusiastic Students and Innovative Teacher-Leaders

EE Helps Build Critical Thinking and Relationship Skills

EE Instructional Strategies Help Foster Leadership Qualities

EE Makes Other School Subjects Rich and Relevant

EE Teaches Students to be Real-World Problem-Solvers

EE Helps Students Become Self-Directed Learners

EE Gets Apathetic Students Excited About Learning

EE Schools Demonstrate Better Academic Performance across the Curriculum

EE Is a Perfect Match for Community Service Learning Requirements

EE Offers All Students Equal Chances for Academic Success

Access to Nature and Outdoor Play Offer a Host of Health Benefits 

Studying EE Creates Enthusiastic Students and Innovative Teacher-Leaders

In a world where it is increasingly challenging to get students interested in classroom lessons, EE offers an enriching way for both students and teachers to connect their appreciation of the natural world to academics.

Educators at Pine Jog Environmental Education Center in Palm Beach County have helped 11 Florida schools restructure their curriculum so that they can meet state standards while organizing activities and multidisciplinary teaching units around environmental themes. Why environmental themes? Because children have a natural interest in the environment around them. Interested students are motivated students, and motivation is a key ingredient for academic achievement.

Though the 11 schools have diverse student populations, the results of this restructuring were remarkably similar. Students at these schools are more enthusiastic about learning and perform better academically.  Teachers are also more enthusiastic about teaching—they bring more innovative instructional strategies into the classroom and take more leadership in school change. 

According to former Palm Beach principal Connie Gregory, “Our students [made] significant improvement in their writing and language arts skills because they were choosing to write about what interested them, which was the environment. … Likewise, our teachers are turned on by the new instructional strategies they are using and the improvements they are seeing in their students. And we all know a turned-on teacher is a better teacher.”

Excerpted from: Archie, M. (2003). Advancing Education through Environmental Literacy. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 
The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. (2000, September). Environment-Based Education: Creating HighPerformanceSchools and Students. Washington, DC: National Environmental Education and Training Foundation.

 

EE Helps Build Critical Thinking and Relationship Skills

Environment-based education emphasizes specific critical thinking skills central to “good science”—questioning, investigating, forming hypotheses, interpreting data, analyzing,  developing conclusions, and solving problems. These are the same skills fifth-grade students in Texas teacher Jane Weaver’s class are learning as they use the local and regional prairie environment to learn about science, mathematics, history, social studies, and language arts. 

The subject matter is standards-based, but students are learning it by tackling real-world projects as opposed to merely doing workbook exercises. For example, Weaver’s students have restored a prairie and designed and built a bridge. As a result, students learned more than just the immediate project skills: they developed their thinking and problem-solving abilities. They learned important life skills, such as cooperation and communication. And, as often happens in project-based learning, they found unique opportunities to build relationships.

Excerpted from: Archie, M. (2003). Advancing Education through Environmental Literacy. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

 

EE Instructional Strategies Help Foster Leadership Qualities

Environmental education emphasizes cooperative learning (i.e., working in teams or with partners), critical thinking and discussion, hands-on activities, and a focus on action strategies with real-world applications. As a result, students who study EE develop and practice the following leadership skills:

  • Working in teams
  • Listening to and accepting diverse opinions
  • Solving real-world problems 
  • Taking the long-term view
  • Promoting actions that serve the larger good
  • Connecting with the community
  • Making a difference in the world

The Catalina Leadership program in Catalina, California, and the Adopt-a-Watershed Project in Hayfork, California, are two examples of environment-based education programs that develop leadership skills. In Catalina, fourth- to 12th-grade students gain leadership skills in a natural setting by exploring the complexity of the natural world. In Hayfork, students study watershed conservation to develop skills such as investigation and problem-solving.

Excerpted from: The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). (2001). Using Environment-Based Education to Advance Learning Skills and Character Development. Washington, DC: NAAEE and NEEF. 

 

EE Makes Other School Subjects Rich and Relevant

Using outdoor settings like wetlands, schoolyard habitats, or even national parks can infuse a sense of richness and relevance into a traditional school curriculum. California’s Heritage Project—a partnership between three school districts and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks—is one example.

Once a week, K–12 students meet with a park ranger to learn about park-related topics, such as forest fire cycles. Frequent park visits to gain hands-on experience are encouraged, creating stronger connections than the more typical once-yearly field trip provides. 

The Heritage Project also offers EE classes that combine learning with recreation and exercise. For example, students study river ecology while kayaking or equine caretaking while horseback riding. 

These hands-on experiences motivate students to learn, and they pay off in better test scores, better social skills, and increased parental involvement. The program’s growth testifies to its success: nearly 75% of local students have become involved in the Heritage Project since it was founded, and teachers welcome the educational support from expert staff at participating parks, forests, refuges, museums, zoos, and nature centers.

Excerpted from: The National Education and Environment Partnership. (2002). Environmental Education and Educational Achievement: Promising Programs and Resources.  Washington, DC: National Environmental Education and Training Foundation.

 

EE Teaches Students to be Real-World Problem-Solvers

Students at the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota, attend high school on the Minnesota Zoo ’s grounds and have daily opportunities to hone their problem-solving skills. The “Zoo School” functions as an interdisciplinary learning laboratory that, in the words of Principal Dan Bodette, “… allows kids to do the kind of thinking that problem solving in the real world requires.”

The Zoo School’s environment-based approach to education lays the foundation for building students’ problem-solving skills. Environment-based education employs these key strategies for teaching creative and successful problem solving:

  • introducing inquiry-based instructional activities with real-world applications,
  • encouraging critical thinking about these activities,
  • allowing individual choice about and engagement in the particular problem to be solved,
  • helping students make connections between disciplines, and
  • fostering independent and cooperative group learning.

For example, students at the Zoo School spend ten days each trimester investigating an independent study topic of their choice. Projects include anything from designing a Web page for the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots and Shoots program to teaching local fourth graders about ecosystems. 
           
Recently, two students profiled a local pond for a themed unit that explored the human/water relationship. They tested the pond water for phosphates, nitrates, and dissolved oxygen so that they could determine the pond’s ecological health and recommend improvements to city officials. The students were so involved in the project that they stayed at Kinko’s until 2 a.m. preparing the presentations they were delivering to city officials the next day—a not unfamiliar scenario in today’s 24/7 workaday world.

Excerpted from: The National Education and Environment Partnership. (2002). Environmental Education and Educational Achievement: Promising Programs and Resources.  Washington, DC: National Environmental Education Foundation.
The National Environmental Education Foundation. (2000, September). Environment-Based Education: Creating High PerformanceSchools and Students. Washington, DC: National Environmental Education Foundation.

 

EE Helps Students Become Self-Directed Learners

Sometimes traditional instruction, such as lecturing, is the most practical approach to covering broad content. But when students learn through a problem- or project-based approach—a key strategy in environment-based education—they gain a better understanding of what they learn, they retain it longer, and they take charge of their own learning—key skills for success in our data-driven, rapidly changing world. 

A case in point: the experience of a student who moved from a traditional school to one focused on EE. “I’ve learned a lot more [here] than I ever did at my old school,” he said. “There, they spoon-fed you. Here, they leave [learning] up to you, and that makes it easier to learn, and to want to learn more.”

An observation by Kathleen McLean, a teacher at Great Falls Public School in Great Falls, Montana, underscores the point: “I take students to places where they can see evidence of [environmental] problems…I am inspired by their creativity and persistence in finding solutions.”

Excerpted from: The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. (2000, September). Environment-Based Education: Creating High PerformanceSchools and Students. Washington, DC: National Environmental Education Foundation.
The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). (2001). Using Environment-Based Education to Advance Learning Skills and Character Development. Washington, DC: NAAEE and NEEF.

 

EE Gets Apathetic Students Excited About Learning

Even bright students can be uninterested in learning —especially if they think that what they’re learning is not relevant to their everyday lives. But tap into their interests—for example, as environmental education does, with its emphasis on the living world and hands-on activities—and students suddenly get excited. Take Daniel, for instance. Daniel was bright, but never turned in his work. His consistent response to any assignment was, “Why do we have to do that?”

One day Daniel’s teacher began a unit on cycles. She started with the cycle that was least familiar—soil minerals—and brought in a bare-bones terrarium that held only soil and earthworms. Students were to add various materials to the terrarium and observe what changed.

Daniel suddenly got interested. He completed assignments, raised his hand to answer questions, and worked with classmates. Every morning before school started, even before the teacher arrived at the classroom door, Daniel was there waiting for her.

He wanted to check on the terrarium and see what was happening, he told his teacher. When she asked why he was so excited about the terrarium, but never got that excited about his other work, Daniel said, “Nobody’s ever asked me to study something like this before!”

Excerpted from: The National Environmental Education Foundation. (2000, September). Environment-Based Education: Creating HighPerformanceSchools and Students. Washington, DC: National Environmental Education Foundation.

 

EE Schools Demonstrate Better Academic Performance across the Curriculum

Schools that adopt environmental education as the central focus of their academic programs frequently demonstrate the following results:

  • Reading, science, social studies, and mathematics scores improve.
  • Students develop the ability to transfer their knowledge from familiar to unfamiliar contexts.
  • Students “learn to do science” rather than “just learn about science.”
  • Classroom discipline problems decline.
  • All students have the opportunity to learn at a higher level.

Hawley Environmental Elementary school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is just one example of how an environment-based curriculum can improve students’ academic performance.  Reading scores at Hawley exceeded all other schools in Wisconsin that were located in similar income-level areas, and the following year student achievement at Hawley exceeded the state average on state tests and on nationally normed assessments. 

Because of these and other achievements, Hawley has since been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and other organizations as a high-performing school that offers “hope for urban education.”

Excerpted from: Archie, M. (2003). Advancing Education through Environmental Literacy. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The National Environmental Education Foundation. (2000, September). Environment-Based Education: Creating High PerformanceSchools and Students. Washington, DC: National Environmental Education Foundation.

 

EE Is a Perfect Match for Community Service Learning Requirements

Many schools require students, especially middle and high school students, to participate in service learning. Environmental projects are a leading choice for service learning nationwide.

At Pennsylvania’s Huntingdon Area Middle School, for example, sixth-grade students study a hands-on, 60-hour, environmentally-based core curriculum. After completing the core course, many students participate in an after-school EE club (Science Teams in Rural Environments for Aquatic Management Studies [STREAMS]) that performs environmental activities to benefit the community. 

Students fund all activities by writing and obtaining their own grants. They’ve become local experts in community stewardship, even educating local citizens, government authorities, and the press about environmental planning and protection. As a result of their service activities, students displayed fewer discipline problems and met with unprecedented academic success. They also formed community partnerships with Pennsylvania organizations such as the League of Women Voters, Juniata College, and the Huntingdon County Conservation District. And parents are now enthusiastic supporters of students’ after-school activities.

Similar projects exist at other schools, with similarly positive results. For instance, students at Florida’s Dowdell Middle Magnet School built houses for 300 native Floridian toads and created brochures to educate the community about the toads’ preferred habitat. This project has increased respect between students and teachers, teachers and parents, and among the students themselves. And students at Four Corners School of Outdoor Education on the Colorado plateau repaired hundreds of miles of trails and roads on public lands. These restoration projects allowed students aged 16–23, 90% of whom are Navajo, to learn job skills, life skills, and environmental stewardship, not to mention a school-district-approved science curriculum.

Excerpted from: The National Education and Environment Partnership. (2002). Environmental Education and Educational Achievement: Promising Programs and Resources.  Washington, DC: National Environmental Education Foundation.

 

EE Offers All Students Equal Chances for Academic Success

Environmental educators often find that students who fail in traditional school settings can succeed when the natural outdoor environment becomes the students’ classroom. For example, students who learn best by doing can be as successful as students who learn best through lectures and books. 

Jeremy, for example, is a high school senior whose writing skills were weak and who admitted that he often had trouble “tying facts together.” After Jeremy got involved in the environmental education program at his school, things changed. He had to write a 2400-word paper, complete an action project, and present his conclusions to a community panel. Not only was his paper “awesome,” according to this English teacher, but Jeremy went further. On his own initiative, he submitted an editorial based on his research to his state capital’s newspaper, and it was published.

Excerpted from: The National Environmental Education Foundation. (2000, September). Environment-Based Education: Creating High Performance Schools and Students. Washington, DC: National Environmental Education Foundation.
The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). (2001). Using Environment-Based Education to Advance Learning Skills and Character Development. Washington, DC: NAAEE and NEEF.

 

Access to Nature and Outdoor Play Offer a Host of Health Benefits

Childhood Chronic Conditions in the United States 

The number of children and adolescents suffering from childhood chronic conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, has increased substantially in the United States in the past four decades. At least 18% of children and adolescents are obese and an estimated 9% have asthma - a figure that has doubled since the 1980s. Around 6% of school-age children are reported to have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Obesity in children and teens has led to an increase in the number of youth who are afflicted with type 2 diabetes. Several studies have revealed that the percentage of children with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes had increased from 5% before 1994 to 30-50% in subsequent years.

Nature as a Remedy to Childhood Chronic Conditions

According to the National Diabetes Education Program, physical activity helps lower blood glucose levels in children and adolescents with type 2 diabetes is a good way to help children control their weight. Several studies have investigated influence natural environments have on both physical activity and childhood chronic conditions.2

Children who spend more time outdoors and who have more exposure to green environments at home tend to be more physically active. One study found that children who spend more time outdoors are more physically active than those children who spend more time indoors. Another study found that the physical activity of children 4-7 years old and of nonoverwieght children 8-12 years old increased with the percentage of park area a child's neighborhood. In a third, related study, children and youth living in green neighborhoods were found to have a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) after a period of two years. The authors attribute this finding increased physical activity or time spent outdoors. They go on to conclude that greenness may offer an environmental approach to preventing childhood obesity.

Exposure to natural environments not only has the potential to address obesity issues but asthma as well. In one recent study, researchers found a connection between street trees and a lower prevalence of early childhood asthma. The authors indicated that this finding may be due to street trees either encouraging outdoor play or affecting local air quality.

Natural environments also have an effect on attentional disorders such as attention-defecit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). One recent study found that children with ADHD concentrated better after a walk in the park than those who participated in a downtown or neighborhood walk. The authors of the study posit that "doses of nature" might serve as a safe, inexpensive and accessible tool for the management of ADHD symptoms.

Often socioeconomic status dictates level of health, which can lead to great disparities in the overall health of different groups of people. However, a recent study found that populations exposed to greener environments also have lower health inequalities related to income deprivation - a finding that leads the authors to conclude that physical environments that encourage healthy lifestyles could be important in reducing socioeconomic health inequalities.

Schools Can Encourage Active and Healthy Lifestyles through Natural Playscapes

Schools have the unique opportunity to encourage active and healthy lifestyles in children and adolescents by transforming school grounds to natural playscapes that offer the physical and psychological benefits of outdoor play and access to green environments.

A recent study using GIS technology to analyze urban schoolyard landcover in Baltimore, Boston and Detroit found that schoolyards generally covered more than 69% of the school property and were principally turf grass and impervious surfaces with less than 10% tree cover on average. The authors conclude that this amount of tree cover is unacceptable, given the health and environmental quality research findings to date.

By transforming these impervious surfaces to natural playscapes, schools have the opportunity to offer their students myriad health benefits. Two recent studies on school grounds from Canadian researchers Anne C. Bell and Janet E. Dyment found that green school grounds diversify the play repertoire for both boys and girls of all ages, interests and abilities, and allows them to be more physically active. They also concluded that school grounds are ideal for bringing the interests of educators and children's health advocates together and that green school grounds add to children's physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being.

 

Perrin, James M., Blook, Sheila R, Gortmaker, Steven L. The increase of childhood chronic conditions in the United States. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2007;297:2755-2759

National Diabetes Education Program. 2006. "Overview of Diabetes in Children and Adolescents: A Fact Sheet from the National Diabetes Education Program."

Hinkley, T., Crawford, D., Salmon, J., Okley, A.D., & Hesketh, K. (2008). "Preschool children and physical activity - A review of correlates." American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32(5), 435-441

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2009. "The Built Environments: Designing Communities to Promote Physical Activity in Children."

Bell, Janice F., Wilson, Jeffrey S., and Liu, Gilbert C. Neighborhood greenness and 2-year changes in Body Mass Index of children and youth. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2008;35(6):547-553

Lovasi, G.S., Quinn, J.W., Neckerman, K.M. Perzanowski, M.S., & Rundle, A. Children living in areas with more street trees have lower prevalence of asthma. Journal of Epidemiol Community Health. 2008;0:1-3. 

Taylor, Andrea Faber & Kuo, Frances E. Children with attention deficits concentrate netter after walk in the park. Journal of Attention Disorders. 2008

Mitchell, Richard & Popham, Frank. Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study. Lancet. 2008;372:1655-1660

Schulman, A., & Peters, C.A. (2008). "GIS analysis of urban schoolyard landcover in three U.S. cities." Urban ecosystems, 11(1), 65-80.

Dyment, J.E., & Bell, A.C. Grounds for movement: Green school grounds as sites for promoting physical activity. Health Education Research. 2007;

Bell, Anne C. & Dyment, Janet E. Grounds for health: The intersection of green school grounds and health-promoting schools. Environmental Education Research. 2008;14:77-90


The Greening STEM Learning Center is made possible with support from Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas

Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas

HEAR MORE FROM NEEF