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. What are the benefits of Environmental Education? We examine a few of EE’s many benefits below.
Environmental Education Improves Academic Achievement
Using outdoor settings like the schoolyard, nearby parks, or public lands like wildlife preserves, wetlands, or even national parks can infuse a sense of richness and relevance into a traditional school curriculum. In addition to gaining valuable skills and environmental knowledge, students often experience advances in other academic areas.
Greater student engagement and academic achievement
In a world where it is increasingly challenging to get students interested in classroom lessons, environmental education offers an enriching way for both students and teachers to connect their appreciation of the natural world to academics.
In a study examining how outdoor learning influences the satisfaction of basic psychological needs, researchers collected data relating to a week of learning in two educational settings: a regular classroom and a residential outdoor learning course. These two settings incorporated social learning, personal development, and ecological knowledge in a regional context, as students worked in groups to learn about various science topics. Students completed questionnaires in each educational setting to evaluate the effect that each had. Additionally, researchers held group-interviews that provide insight into students’ attitudes and beliefs.
Data analyses show that basic needs satisfaction in the outdoor context is higher than indoors and more significantly, the outdoor program had the biggest increase in the students’ intrinsic motivation. When students have higher intrinsic motivation, their behavior is driven by internal rewards, rather than extrinsic rewards, such as bad grades. Thus, learning is more naturally satisfying, and students are more engaged.1
Supporting research also asserts that environmental education and outdoor programs utilizing explorative learning can drastically improve the student’s learning attitudes. Additionally, when these outdoor learning experiences are implemented by trained teachers in familiar settings, students are more engaged and experience greater science achievement.2
A 2003 study illustrated the effect of structuring curriculum to meet state standards while organizing activities and multidisciplinary teaching units around environmental themes since children have a natural interest in the environment around them. Interested students are motivated students, and motivation is a key ingredient for academic achievement. In the study, students at these schools were more enthusiastic about learning and performed better academically. Teachers were also more enthusiastic about teaching—they brought more innovative instructional strategies into the classroom and took more leadership in school change.3
Environmental education and outdoor programs utilizing explorative learning can drastically improve the student’s learning attitudes.
Develops confidence to investigate and solve local problems
Environment-based education emphasizes specific critical thinking skills central to “good science”—questioning, investigating, forming hypotheses, interpreting data, analyzing, developing conclusions, and solving problems. High school students in an intensive, urban ecology focused summer program conducted scientific investigations of their urban ecosystems using geographic information systems (GIS) and computer modelling. Through these tools, students are learning about the ecological services provided by the urban forest canopy and about the impact of urban noise on birdsong.
By tackling real-world projects as opposed to merely doing workbook exercises, students improve their science self-efficacy. Through conducting pre and post surveys of students on their beliefs and experiences during this study, researchers found that by engaging students in local and focused targeted environmental science investigations, students developed the confidence to investigate and solve local problems that increased their ability to study science.4
In the 21st century, the use of technology is increasingly essential for everyday life. By using technology to teach environmental education concepts, educators impart to set students a valuable life skill. One study observed the effects of using digital technology during outdoor education experience. Project EARPOD (Engaging At-Risk Populations Outdoors, Digitally) used an integrated technology program to engage underserved students in environmental education while also examining the effectiveness of incorporating technology into their educational experience. Results showed that students reported an increase in using technology outdoors, gained knowledge of available technologies, and expanded their knowledge of different technologies. This increase in technology-specific knowledge leads to an increase in confidence while using technology.5
I take students to places where they can see evidence of [environmental] problems…I am inspired by their creativity and persistence in finding solutions.
Fosters interest in STEM careers
As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and complex, the youth need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to investigate and solve problems. Since those in STEM careers are often tasked with figuring out solutions to the world’s problems, students must be introduced to these skills and begin learning about careers in STEM from a young age. In 2014, an experimental study examined the impact of a citizen science program on middle school students’ science performance and STEM career motivation. Students conducted fieldwork with naturalists and collected data related to horseshow crabs that would be used for professional biologists. The results supported hypotheses that students would report higher motivational beliefs regarding science and show higher levels of achievement. Further, analyses showed that these motivational beliefs influence content knowledge and outcome expectations, which then influence career goals.6
Environmental education courses typically -expect- results such as positive impacts on students’ environmental attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge. Due to the nature of program design, courses can also develop other skills in students. In a project-based learning EE course where students developed projects to solve environmental problems, students were found to not only have increased positive environmental attitudes but also enhanced creativity. When working together to collaborate and seek unique solutions to problems, they were able to hone into their creativity and take on more active tasks in the solution process.7
Incorporating aspects of environmental education into STEM topics can help illustrate the power of EE. It can also be combined with art instruction to deepen understanding of both areas. A paper examining the crossroads of public art, nature, and environmental education states that the benefits are:
- Promotes intellectual development
- Encourages inspiration
- Supports consciousness about social and environmental issues
- Develops a sense of connection with nature
- Teaches how to ask questions and examine contextual information8
Environmental Education Encourages Environmental Stewardship
In the environmental education field, educators hope to deliver lessons and experiences that will cause students to learn about and understand the environment. Often, EE is considered successful when students grasp environmental concepts, identify cause and effect relationships and understand the implications of their actions.
Develops skills for effectively addressing ecological issues/Increases capacity for future conservation efforts
Recent environmental education research is being conducted to illustrate the power of environmental education beyond learners to understand the impact that it has on environmental stewardship and conservation. To examine the ways that programs may meet the goals of conservation science and environmental science education, researchers examined case studies of youth community and citizen science programs. Through observations of programming and interviews with educators and youth program participants, researchers collected data on the programs’ impact on conservation and the youth participants’ environmental science agency (ESA). ESA combines an understanding of environmental science and inquiry practices with the youths’ identification with these practices and their developing understanding that their actions impact the ecosystem.
One key finding that was that the factors influencing students’ environmental science agency were whether or not they perceived the project as “real” science or not. Students were found to contribute value to their contribution and legitimate participation in the local and science communities. By participating in real, complex scientific efforts, students felt that their work meant something and was making a difference. While engaging in their local communities, they changed the landscapes that surrounded them in ways that would be visible in daily life. When students saw that they hold the power to contribute to conservation as a collective, they become motivated to continue to pursue conservation efforts so that they not only retained science and conservation knowledge, skills, roles, and actions, which create the foundation and capacity for future conservation efforts.9
Motivates people to “think globally by acting locally”/ motivates people to improve the environmental value of surroundings
Through environmental education, people become aware of the natural environment10. When learning about the ways that ecosystems work together, the problems that face them, and the ways that humans cause harm, it becomes evident what the human role is in the surrounding environment. By learning how to remediate the environment, people may become inspired to take action and improve the environmental value of their surroundings.
In a habitat enhancement project for students in Miami-Dade County public schools, students learned about the anthropogenic activities that have modified their local environment and altered the local habitat, leading to a decline in the number of native butterflies. This environmental education project included informational activities about butterflies and their natural habitat, habitat rehabilitation, and butterfly monitoring. The result was native butterfly gardens on or surrounding school grounds, which increased the ecological value of the surrounding area and provided a healthier habitat for butterflies. By implementing this project in such a prominent space, where students, faculty, and families would get to experience and enjoy this habitat restoration, large numbers of people will be motivated to help care for the environment and will “think globally by acting locally”.11
Environmental Education Deepens Personal Development and Wellbeing
Spending time in nature is thought to have restorative effects. Luckily, environmental education draws people outdoors and allows learners to focus their minds on natural landscapes and concepts. Through learning EE topics, we can deepen our personal development and support our all-over wellbeing.
Learning about nature and connecting with nature supports happiness and more purposeful, fulfilling, and meaningful lives
A study cites modern society as a whole’s disconnect with nature as a leading contributor to growing environmental problems across the world. Stimuli, such as electronic media and advertising, contribute to nature blindness, which causes us to further turn to artificial stimuli and away from nature. This launches into a vicious cycle where the less connected we become to nature, the less we feel responsible for its conservation so the further we degrade our environment. Not only does this disconnect harm the environment, but it also has adverse psychological and physiological impacts on human beings.
Connectedness with nature is comprised of three components: information about nature, experience in nature, and committed nature connectedness. Environmental education is essential in introducing, strengthening, and fortifying these components in peoples’ lives. Through EE, individuals that have high nature connectedness experience many physiological, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual benefits, including:
- Improved cognitive, cardiovascular, and immune functioning
- Reduced crime, aggression, and antisocial behavior
- Reduced symptoms of ADHD in children
- Improved psychological well-being (e.g. mindfulness, meaningfulness, self-actualization, happiness, and vitality)12
In 2016, the National Environmental Education Foundation developed this Fact Sheet on Children's Health and Nature, discussing the role of nature in combating childhood obesity, asthma, and other health concerns. Much of the data is still relevant today.
Mental Health Benefits
In a study investigating the association between greenness around schools and symptoms of ADHD, data showed that greater greenness levels were significantly associated with lower incidences of ADHD symptoms.13 Further research shows that nature is valuable in coping with psycho-physiological stress. Exposure to natural environments “mediates the negative effects of stress-reducing the negative mood state and above all enhancing positive emotions”. Spending time in nature is found to elicit calming responses, aid in the recovery of physiological stress and mental fatigue, and recover the decrease of cognitive performance.14
Environmental Education Strengthens Communities
During environmental education experiences, there are often components of environmental remediation as part of the learning. These remediation efforts can aim to restore natural habitat, clean up pollution, and more. When the natural landscape is positively changed by groups, the entire surrounding community is impacted. Completing such community-based stewardship projects or civic ecology practices can be beneficial for the entire community and those living in it.
Benefits to the community
Place-based learning is an environmental educational approach that uses all aspects of the local environment, including local cultural, historical, and sociopolitical situations, and the natural and built environment as the integrating context for learning. In its most developed forms, it includes a clear focus on learning through civic engagement and participation in service projects of obvious relevance to the local school and community. 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.
Environmental education programs that are “nested within and linked to community-based stewardship or civic ecology practices, such as community forestry, streamside restoration, and community gardening” can lead to ecosystem services and community well-being.15
When stewardship education is place-based and takes place in one’s local community, it can develop young people’s sense of the public realm more broadly and their stake in the natural environment and their communities.16
When stewardship education is place-based and takes place in one’s local community, it can develop young people’s sense of the public realm more broadly and their stake in the natural environment and their communities.
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A collection of fun, active, and engaging games to help children of all ages learn about the environment.