Oregon Knows The Secret To Fostering Pro-Conservation Majorities-Get the Kids Outside
Among the many threats to our planet, one of the most serious is our citizenry’s declining awareness of our natural world and how it works. How can we expect young people to care about this amazing world without a chance to experience and learn–by getting muddy, by analyzing water quality, by measuring the height and carbon content of trees–about the world they live in? In the famous words of Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” Our ability to solve present and future environmental crises, such as changing climate, the loss of plant and animal species, food insecurity, water resource depletion and soil degradation, all depend upon immersing our children in nature and giving them the tools to understand the forces that govern this planet.
Today, kids spend an average of seven hours-plus daily in front of a screen and less time outside than ever before. That’s a significant problem because kids who grow up without a connection to the natural world are less likely to be passionate about conservation in their own lives, less likely to support policies that enhance sustainable communities and less likely to vote for pro-environment leaders. We are losing the battles between distraction and engagement, between consumerism and stewardship, between cynicism and healthy, scientific skepticism.
Yet hope is not lost. As we said at the beginning, we can inspire and motivate young people and we’ve seen it happen in Oregon. This November, Oregon voters passed a statewide funding measure, making Oregon the first state in the nation to guarantee a full week of Outdoor School–hands-on, field science for all middle-schoolers statewide. Save Outdoor School for All (Measure 99) is a landmark decision for many reasons, with wide-ranging and precedent-setting implications for environmental and social justice groups throughout the country.
Our experience in Oregon gives us hope for the future. Oregon’s decision recognizes that the future of environmental leadership takes education, coalition-building and inclusiveness. While the next four years may bring epic battles over environmental policy at the national level, we encourage environmental organizations and their members to support local outdoor education efforts. Here are three key takeaways from Oregon’s successful campaign:
- Building concern and passion for the outdoors means getting kids out of the classroom and into the woods. By passing Measure 99, Oregonians recognized that the path to really understanding our environment begins through rigorous science education. And that nature is the best science lab of all. Unlike learning inside the classroom or from a textbook, getting kids outside awakens their innate curiosity and love for nature. Much more than a field trip, Outdoor School type programs provide tools and insights needed to understand critical concepts such as ecosystem interdependencies as well as for understanding complex issues such as climate change. We found that voters understand that this type of education at a young age sets in motion a lifetime of environmental awareness, while also contributing to a healthy, active lifestyle.
- Outdoor education offers an invaluable opportunity for science learning and intellectual development. Data and teachers both confirm that Outdoor School reaches children at a critical age, expanding not only their intellectual capacity but also their personal growth–teaching collaboration, problem solving and resilience. New economies and job markets value these skills more than ever before. If our nation is going to produce future generations of dreamers and doers then we need more programs like Oregon’s Outdoor School.
- Inclusiveness is essential to the future of environmental progress.
Connecting with the natural world bridges ideologies and cultures, and is valued by both rural and urban communities. Natural resource companies, including timber and agriculture, found common ground with outdoor and environmental organizations in endorsing Measure 99. By ensuring Outdoor School is available to all students, Oregon’s program will build a more equitable, shared connection to nature that will make tomorrow’s conservation movement stronger and far more diverse, responding to America’s changing demographics and increased diversity.
While all states are challenged by limited education funding and competing priorities, Oregon’s success in passing funding for universal Outdoor School ought to inspire the environmental community. Change can happen. It starts first and foremost by awakening the love of nature in the next generation. And what better place to do it than where we find them every day–in school.