Children’s Environmental Education – Introduction

Grotto at Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center

Over the past four generations, lifestyles and urban growing patterns in the U.S. and other developed countries have collided to undermine what was once a staple of most childhood experience: playing in nature and the outdoors.

Many children that live in cities have limited access to the natural world – only one in five U.S. households, for example, is located within half a mile of a park. And many parks located near school grounds are largely void of trees and natural areas.

Many children experience safety barriers to outdoor play due to traffic – new suburbs are usually designed to be drivable rather than walkable, while new schools can sometimes be difficult to safely approach without cars. In 1969, 48% of young people 5 to 14 years old walked or biked to school. By 2009, it had plummeted to 13%. Crime in some neighborhoods can also discourage outdoor play.

The ubiquitous growth of electronic devices, from iPods to cell phones to video game stations, cuts into time that used to be spent outside. One study showed that media use consumed 7.4 hours a day for U.S. children and teens 8 to 18 years of age; 11- to 14-year olds spent 9 hours a day. One study in Britain found more 8-year olds could identify Pokeman characters than wildlife species.

Lack of nature experience contributes to a host of physical and mental conditions that Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, poetically describes as “nature deficit disorder.” It seems intuitive that children function better when exposed to and experiencing natural environments. But it is also documented in numerous scientific studies.

Nature exposure and activities: increase attention span and test scores; reduce stress, anger, fear, and depression; reduce behavioral problems and juvenile delinquency; promote healthier social behavior; assist in recovery from physical trauma; and improve cognitive skills, critical thinking, and decision-making. In a word, children are happier when playing in nature.

They are also healthier.

  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder rates in the U.S. have skyrocketed from 5.5% in 1997 to 9.8% in 2018 for youth 3 to 17 years of age. This problem can be reduced or mitigated by outdoor experiences.
  • Obesity rates in the U.S., linked to diabetes, cardiorespiratory fitness, and low self-esteem, soared from 5% in 1966-70 to 21%in 2015-16 for youth 12 to 19 years of age. Severe weight problems are reduced by physical exercise.
  • Natural Vitamin D levels required for healthy bones and teeth, and that regulate metabolism, are increased through outdoor play. (“Vitamin D” is actually a hormone produced when sunlight comes in contact with skin.)

Teaching Place

I was fortunate to have interviewed some of Austin’s most talented environmental educators for this article. While I asked about their techniques, subjects, and courses, I also asked about their philosophy. Many said that care for the environment starts with place.

Heather Kuhlken, Director of the organization Families in Nature, infers that nature exposure is often a prerequisite to an environmental worldview. “Love of nature is the absolute foundation of conservation… I have never spoken to a conservationist who does not share a story of playing outside as their connection to nature 

Dave Scott, Director of the Earth Native Wilderness School near Bastrop, believes that “By changing environmental protection of theoretical creeks into real creeks, you are creating a foundation for people to care.”

LaJuan Tucker, a Supervisor at the Austin Nature and Science Center was even more succinct: “People don’t love what they can’t see.”

Teaching Hope

I also asked these educators how they balanced optimism to positively teach children in the face of the world’s tormenting environmental problems.

Lauren Zappone Maples, Director of Partners for Education, Agriculture, and Sustainability, believes “If I allow myself to stay in a dark space, it is not for too long. I am not willing to give up.” So she places her constructive energy educating the next generation.

Amelia DeVivo at Austin Youth River Watch observes that she sees a lot of the high school students the organization teaches become dejected because of climate science, but tries to keep a positive attitude by telling them: “You are a powerful person. Your activities account for something.”

Emily Cuellar-Perlaky of the Austin Nature and Science Center takes solace in how children she teaches become so inspired by nature that they keep showing up year after year for courses and ultimately get jobs in environmental fields as adults. “Success is measured in how many come back.” 

This edition of the Directory has created a resource section of organizations in Central Texas that expose young people to nature, train them to live and play there, teach natural systems and history, and instruct and coach them in outdoor activities, skills, and safety. While some deserving organizations have probably been omitted, this article can be used by school teachers, teens, parents, and grandparents as a beginner’s guide for young people to find ways to experience the natural beauty of our region.

Continue to Austin Nature & Science Center ->

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