No Child Left Alone

Will more funding for environmental education classes like this one in San Francisco result in more kids spending more time outside independently?  photo credit:  sfnature.org

The US House of Representatives recently passed a “No Child Left Inside Act,” authorizing the expenditure of $500 million – $100 million per year for five years – to state education departments and non-profits to provide environmental education programs for children.

Fortunately, the Senate hasn’t voted on this measure yet. It was easier to vote for 700 billion dollars ago. Now, I’m hoping our elected representatives think it through more carefully.

This Act is a very bad idea, in my opinion. Does my opposition mean I’m against getting children outside? Absolutely not. Despite the name, this measure is more about environmental educators than it is about getting children outside.Before going on, I should say a word about the No Child Left Inside movement. “No Child Left Inside” is a slogan created by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. Louv’s movement has been a great ally of Playborhood’s mission, to get children playing outside in their neighborhoods.

However, this Act does not support children playing outside in their neighborhoods. Think about this for a moment. Children spend drastically less free time outdoors than children of decades ago. This is all documented in the work of Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland. (See her paper on the period from 1997 to 2003 as well as her earlier work on the period from 1981 to 1997.)

Why is this? Well, schools are largely to blame. Relative to children of decades ago, children of today go to school for more hours during the day and spend more time every night doing homework. In addition, they spend more time outside of school in structured activities such as organized sports. This all adds up to less available “free time,” and whatever free time kids have is largely taken up by screen time – video games, television, and the Internet.

So, why are we throwing a half a billion dollars at schools to solve the problem of children not spending enough time in nature when they are a big part of the problem?

Perhaps we’re doing it because schools will be good at educating children about the benefits of being outside. Waiiiiiiiiit, I spent a heck of a lot more time in nature as a kid than most kids these days, and I had far less “environmental education” than these kids already have.

Could it be that experience in nature is most important, not adults trying to force kids to appreciate nature?

That’s the conclusion of a recent study by Cornell University researchers that everyone in the environmental education movement wishes would go away. The authors admit that they expected to find that “environmental education” in the childhood years results in increased “environmental behaviors” (time spent in nature) and “environmental attitudes” in adults.

Instead, they found that “participation in environmental education programs (in school, in scouts, at camp, or in community environmental improvement programs) was not a significant predictor of either environmental attitudes or behaviors.” On the other hand, the researchers found that actual time spent in “wild” (i.e. non-domesticated) nature does result in significantly increased environmental behaviors and attitudes.

In sum, schools are taking more and more free time away from children, and they have not been proven to increase children’s environmental behaviors and attitudes, yet Congress is considering giving them $500 million to do just that.

This Act feels a lot like the “pork” that our elected officials are supposed to be targeting to get our federal budget in control. If our US Senators are wise, they’ll leave this unwise Act behind.

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4 Responses to No Child Left Alone

  1. mygirlsmom says:

    This is an interesting argument against environmental education programs and the monies spent to fund them. Although I do think these programs serve some children from inner cities well–that don’t have neighborhoods to roam safely in. That is if these programs can reach those children.

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    Peter Gray, a professor of developmental psychology and blogger for psychologytoday.com, just posted another article critical of this Act today. Gray emphasizes how schools have too many rules, tests, and requirements, and how this act would just add to that.

    He recommends that we all write our Senators to urge a “no” vote. I concur – I just sent letters to California Senators Feinstein and Boxer earlier today.

  3. gina_moreland says:

    This is a complicated issue, Mike, and as a former non-traditional environmental educator myself who worked in public schools, I do appreciate your point. However, pragmatically speaking, it’s got to be a good thing to have funding and a stamp of approval from Congress that kids doing anything outdoors is important. In most communities, we are so far away from permitting and encouraging kids to be in any outdoor environment not otherwise doing sports, I’d like to believe this is a step in the right direction. However, I am not so naive as to think that this program, if funded, won’t result in some structured, typical environmental ed programming that doesn’t particularly benefit kids. But I would bet that in some places in the US where funding got allocated, there would be a non-traditional environmental educator who would create a “Wild Zone”, or who would take kids into the woods to build forts, or play in stream beds. All it takes is a few people to start a movement. I think a more strategic effort would be to advocate at the state and local levels for the funding to be used in these more appropriate ways.

  4. Sue says:

    I understand where you are coming from, Gina, however, I just don’t think we need yet another government funded program to “teach” children how to play outside so that they will appreciate being outside. Just having children be outside, even in more urban areas, stimulates the imagination and the different types of play. Just like the old analogy that the kids had more fun with the box than with the toy (that’s another way to make a fort), getting outside anywhere will stimulate the imagination. I think we are best off not trying to teach children how to use their imagination and just to let it flourish through play. I see this all the time with my children and their friends. As adults, I think we tend to forget how much fun it is to just be.