Climate

Legislation Would Provide Funding For Teachers Who Find Ways To Take Their Lessons Outdoors

CREDIT: AP Photo/University of Mississippi, Nathan Latil

Learning about the environment in a classroom isn’t enough for one U.S. Congressman: if kids are learning about nature, he says, they should be doing it outdoors.

That’s the motivation behind the No Child Left Inside Act, which was introduced Wednesday by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) and Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA). The act, which has been introduced in Congress before but never passed, aims to increase environmental education opportunities outdoors by providing grant funding for teachers who create environmental education programs that center around outdoor activities. It would also give incentive for states to develop environmental literacy plans — which, according to the bill, 48 states either have done or are in the process of doing — and would encourage teachers and education groups to partner with local nonprofits to develop new ways to bring environmental education into their lessons.

Sarbanes told ThinkProgress that his childhood summers spent crabbing, fishing and exploring the Chesapeake Bay made reintroducing the NCLI act personal for him.

“I grew up feeling like the bay and the environment were something were really part of who I was, of who I am, and so the idea of being able to connect young people to the outdoors… to build environmental education into instructional opportunities was something irresistible to me,” he said.

A previous version of the bill included $500 million in funds, but Sarbanes said this version of the bill doesn’t include a specific amount.

Sarbanes, like the authors of the original act, which was first introduced in 2009, is also concerned that a lot of kids now don’t get the same opportunities he had to play and learn outside. The NCLI bill — and the movement that helped prompt its creation — was inspired by Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” a book which developed the term “nature deficit disorder” to refer to kids that don’t get enough time outdoors. For some kids — especially those who are overweight — the problem of too little time outdoors has gotten so bad that pediatricians are prescribing outside time.

But aside from getting outdoors being good for kids, Sarbanes said that he thinks environmental education is necessary for kids in a more fundamental way. Kids are going to be the ones who have to deal with the world’s worsening environmental problems as they grow up, making environmental education now essential, he said.

“When we look at climate change in particular, we look at the need to improve and sustain good water quality, clean air, a bountiful earth,” he said. “And you want this instinct to be something that’s not second nature but first nature for the next generation. Because the planet is kind of straining under a lot of pressures right now, and I think it’s this next generation that’s going to determine whether we can protect and preserve this environment.”

The NCLI bill has run up against some opposition in the past, however. In 2009, Dan Lips, then a senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, told CBS News that the bill was an example of “the politicization of what’s taught in American classrooms.” The Competitive Enterprise Institute had similar thoughts on the bill at the time.

Lately, debate over teaching environmental and climate science in schools has centered around the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of guidelines developed by 26 states and multiple science and education organizations that, if adopted by states, can help guide teachers in their treatment of science topics in the curriculum. Many climate and science education organizations are in favor of the standards because they include the teaching of climate change — and the science behind it — in general curricula. But the standards have been getting blowback in some states: Oklahoma, for instance, voted to reject the standards last year. State Rep. Mark McCullough (R-OK) said at the time that he was concerned about the parts of the standards that address climate change his concern over the sections in the standards that deal with climate science, saying he wondered whether they would present “a fairly-one sided view as to that controversial subject, a subject that’s very much in dispute among even the academics.”

Sarbanes said that, though he expects some debate on the NCLI bill, he doesn’t think it will attract the same sort of opposition that the Next Generation Science Standards have. He said that the act has strong support among his colleagues in Congress — it was introduced with 35 co-sponsors — and that the idea that kids should learn about nature by experiencing it is hard to argue with, he said.

“Even somebody who still may be resisting what i think is the scientific consensus of climate change wouldn’t necessarily object to the idea that it’s going to be more exciting and engaging for a classroom of seventh graders and fifth graders to spend day in the Chesapeake Bay learning about blue crabs, fisheries, bay grasses, and the rest of it,” he said. “That’s taking classroom instruction to next level. It’s not an ideological agenda.”