Environmental Education

I started working at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center and with Nature Net in the year 2000, when the field of environmental education was “middle-aged” – that is, halfway through its existence to date – and perhaps just reaching the cusp of its full potential. It was the early 1970s when Earth Day was born and a civil movement began around the idea of caring for and protecting our natural resources. Not long after, in 1977, delegates from over 60 nations met in the nation of Georgia to formally declare the vision and goals of the emerging field of environmental education. While Earth Day focused on caring for our air and water, the “Tbilisi Declaration” that came out of the meeting in Georgia focused more on how people’s knowledge, skills, and actions can be informed and encouraged to protect our air and water and other natural resources.

As I reflect on my near-twenty years spent supporting and engaging in environmental education and on the forty+ years since Tbilisi, I can’t help but think that the idea of caring for our Earth has shifted. It’s no longer simply about clean air and water. It’s about social and environmental justice. And it’s about the mental and physical health of our children.

Environmental Justice

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (also founded in the 1970s, btw) Environmental Justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Others, like the Nature Resources Defense Council (NRDC), take a slightly different approach, claiming that “environmental justice really reflects the fundamental reality that vulnerable communities are all too often subject to the disproportionate burden of pollution and contamination.”

Among the ways the NRDC suggests we might combat environmental injustice is public education. If the tenets of environmental education hold true (awareness + knowledge + skills –> attitudes + participation), a new generation (regardless of race, color, national origin, or income) of change-makers and equity-seekers may certainly come to be. In fact, we may already be headed that way, given that “vulnerable communities” often consist of people of color, and that research continues to show that Latin and African Americans have strong concerns for environmental issues, as cited in EarthJustice, Grist, and The Conversation. If people who care are empowered with the knowledge and skills to change the policies and regulations that impact their local environments, environmental education has done its job.

Did you know… In 1994 President Clinton issued an Executive Order – 12898 Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations – that directs all federal agencies to identify, address, and create a strategy for implementing environmental justice. To that end, the Department of Education has developed an Environmental Justice Strategy that “focuses on healthy learning environments for students, energy-efficient school facilities, sustainability education and environmental literacy, and energy efficiency in ED [Department of Education] facilities.” This Order was reaffirmed in 2011 by President Obama. The full text can be downloaded from – but I’ve also created a link to the text here.

Another interesting fact to note: the majority of all Americans think the government is doing too little on environmental protection.

Children’s Health

It was Richard Louv who in 2005 researched, wrote about, and coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Since that time, he and his non-profit organization, Children & Nature Network have continued to fill their files cabinets (and, of course, their on-line collaborative research library) with research reports linking lack of time in nature to serious detrimental physical and mental health issues. But let’s flip that narrative to: time spent in nature and environmental education is good for children’s (and our) health and well-being. Here’s just a quick finding from my latest search:

So, is environmental education “over the hill?” Has it glided through middle-age and into the a more wizened and mature version of itself? A version that is ready to address, tackle, and raise a fist over meaningful social issues like environmental justice and children’s health? Has it reached its full potential? What do you think?

Nature Net News Flashback from 2009

Instant Outdoor Expert: The First Earth Day
In 1970 the first Earth Day was observed by twenty million people (10% of the US population) with marches, rallies, concerts, and teach-ins designed to speak out against pollution. The most amazing element of the first Earth Day is the truly organic nature of its creation. In the 1960’s though Gaylord Nelson, a United States Senator at the time, toured the nation speaking out about the state of America’s environment (and convinced President Kennedy to do the same), there was not much of a public nor political movement to change environmental policy or practices. Nelson, who had experienced much success in the way of conservation and resource planning as Wisconsin’s Governor, felt there must be a way to harness American’s increasing awareness and concern for environmental issues and translate it to action. Senator Nelson would later claim the idea for Earth Day simply “popped into my head.” Using the notion of grassroots- or student-led “teach-ins” like those held to protest the war in Vietnam, Nelson formed Environmental Teach-In, Inc. in 1969. With a sparsely staffed headquarters set up in Washington DC, it took a mere six-months to recruit and activate local student groups, conservationists, and communities. Though Earth Day headquarters fielded inquires and disseminated information, the day itself was planned and organized locally. Nelson himself stated, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor the resources to organize twenty million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”

Now, almost forty years later, Earth Day is still a locally-driven day of action and environmental awareness. Find out what you can do this April 22nd from the Earth Day Network.

To Do This Month:

Take a hike with your Nature Passport – this year’s Passport is designed to keep you exploring all year long.

Check out this sweet Wisconsin State Journal article from July showcasing the Middle School students who constructed our Nature Passport boxes and helped to install them at local Nature Net member sites. Thank you Jefferson Middle School students!

Another article to note: Nature Net supporter and friend, James Edward Mills published a great piece in Outside Magazine about diversity in the field of outdoor adventuring.

As part of back-to-school learning, find out how School Forests came to be and how long they’ve been around. Hint: It’s not the 1970s… Students and teachers learned about conservation through a movie played “on a 16-millimeter movie machine that ran on six volt batteries, since most of the one-room schools didn’t have electricity.”

If your kids are too young to be heading back to school, check out these local groups that encourage and support hiking and playing outdoors with your baby or toddler: Free Forest School and Hike it Baby.

Gear up for your hikes and keep track of changing scenery across the state with Travel Wisconsin’s Fall Color Report or read up on tips for how to continue hiking even as the Winter months take over.

New Nature Net Members

Rock Garden Caterpillar

Favorite Environmental Ed Books

Upcoming Events

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For Educators:

Environmental Education Conference

The Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education (WAEE) is hosting an annual gathering of those interested in environmental education at Nature Net member site, Upham Woods. The event will take place October 18-20, 2018 with a theme focused on Equity in Environmental Education: #NatureForAll. Highlights include:

  • Keynote address from Dudley Edmondson who wrote “Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places”
  • Two-session workshop hosted by the Center for Diversity & the Environment focused on “exploring the gifts of equity, diversity, and inclusion”
  • Panel Discussion with WAEE’s inaugural “Eco-Justice Award” recipients
  • Special guest breakout sessions concentrated on raising capital for nature centers and other non-profits
  • And conference tracks centered around Farm to School and Early Childhood Education

You can sign up today to join in learning and exploring these meaningful topics in the world of environmental education. Can’t get a sub? There’s a full day of sessions and activities on Saturday! Hope to see you there!

For Families:

Back to School

If your family is like mine, back-to-school-time swoops down on the first weeks of September with a storm of new pencils, scrubbed up sneakers and lunch boxes, and a packed calendar of events. “Back to School Night” is coming up and so is that first Parent-Teacher Organization meeting. If you’re interested in helping your kids get outdoors as a regular part of their scholastic experience, Nature Net has a few ideas you can share at the next PTO or PTA meeting:

  • Nature Net has funds to support transportation needs for field trips to any Nature Net member site. Let staff know that Nature Express is an easy way to get $80 per bus reimbursed.
  • The Wisconsin School Garden Network offers webinars, other trainings, grant opportunities, and real live people to help get your school garden program off the ground or catapulted to the next level. Garden to cafeteria, anyone?
  • The Healthy Kids Collaborative is hosting the “Walk or Wheel Challenge” this October. Help organize activities that promote safe biking and walking routes to school and become eligible to win $250 for your school!
  • UW WISCIENCE (Wisconsin Institute for Science Education & Community Engagement) runs an “Adult Role Models in Science” program that offers multiple opportunities to connect your child’s classroom or after-school program with scientists from the community.
  • Parents are encouraged to get involved and assist school staff in making schools environmentally-minded through the Green & Healthy Schools program. The program recognizes schools that are working to “reduce environmental impact and costs, improve health and wellness, and increase environmental and sustainability literacy through a self-paced, voluntary, web-based application.”
  • Many Nature Net member sites and several other organizations around the state offer teacher trainings and workshops throughout the year. Share these ideas with your principal or classroom teacher and inspire them to action.

And good luck with the rest of the school year – here’s hoping your family gets back into the school-year flow as quickly as possible, and your child spends as much quality learning time outdoors as he or she can.

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.