“The kids have been captivated by this experience. You see them looking and smelling and tasting. They don’t think that this is school. Yet we know what they’re learning. And it’s very important, fundamental information.” – Alice Waters, The Edible Schoolyard Project
At one time, playgrounds were places where kids were sent to work out pent-up energy from the classroom on the swings and soccer pitch. Today, playgrounds and schoolyards have become classrooms in their own right, setting a foundation for a lifetime of environmental stewardship.
Take the school vegetable garden. The past decade has seen a surge of interest in gardens in the wake of Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project and Michelle Obama’s organic vegetable garden at the White House. Washington, DC alone has over 80 school gardens.
The National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools program is fostering an appreciation for healthy, homegrown food in ways their parents probably never experienced. At PS69 in the Bronx, New York, students not only grow their own vegetables, but have developed connections with local farmers who teach kids about their work by bringing baby cows to class!
Elsewhere in New York City, at PS164 in Brooklyn, the Trust for Public Land helped establish a unique “green yard” complete with rain garden, tree groves, and composting areas. The best part? Kids at the school helped design the space and therefore feel a stronger sense of ownership. The green yard has also increased interaction between the school and members of the community.
In California, the Surfrider Foundation is sponsoring a different kind of green yard… or rather, a blue yard. The Ocean Friendly Garden at Redondo Union High School is capturing rainwater to prevent polluted runoff from reaching local waterways. The space also serves as a research site for biology and environmental science students.
Students in Maryland get to learn about their state reptile through the National Aquarium’s Terrapins in the Classroom program. Hatchling terrapins are “loaned” to 30 schools that care for and learn about the turtles during the year. Before summer vacation, students take a trip to Poplar Island to release the terrapins back to the wild (see photos of students releasing their terrapins here).
These programs are not only good for the environment, they provide a big boost for kids health and academic success too. Research from North Carolina State University found that minority students exposed to outdoor educational opportunities improve their ecological literacy and cognitive skills. Proficiency in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects is enhanced through hands-on outdoor education, and students’ mental and physical health improves with access to nature.
To learn more about the EarthShare organizations that support outdoor education programs, visit our Environmental Education issues page. Are you an educator or parent? The National Environmental Education has lots of resources for integrating outdoor learning into the curriculum.