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Less Lip, More Action: Time to Connect Kids With Nature

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It's no surprise that conversations across the country continue on the need to advance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. By 2014, about 2 million STEM-related jobs will be created, and over the years this number will grow.

Every week, discussions take place on Capitol Hill and in the media about the need to get kids outside, improve environmental literacy and advance STEM education to support related careers. We all agree that we must do more to prepare our kids to address the environmental challenges we face and to ensure future success in the workforce and the economy of tomorrow, but it's time to move beyond talking and take action.

A recent Education Week blog highlights a new issue brief from the National Governors Association that calls on the need for more "informal science education -- learning outside the classroom." The brief states that this type of learning is frequently overlooked and that "informal science education extends student learning beyond the classroom through hands-on activities that let youth discover and practice STEM concepts."

Although we have access to the best outdoor classrooms, our national parks, we fail to take full advantage of them. Judy Keen wrote an interesting piece in USA Today last week underscoring the importance of connecting youth with these incredible resources. She discussed declining park attendance, especially among younger demographics, and cited a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study that showed our children are spending a daily average of 7½ hours on digital media.

The needs are clear -- environmentally literate youth who are prepared for the future. The solution is simple -- connect children to nature via informal science education. It's not a new concept. In fact, it's a proven solution that organizations such as NatureBridge, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Parks Conservation Association have been advocating for years! Residential and outdoor environmental science education is an established learning model. Our national, local and state parks bring science to life, and hands-on, experiential learning in the outdoors inspires and changes the lives of our young people. One of our NatureBridge students says it best: "In the classroom you're just sitting at your desk learning about it, out here you actually get to go and do it!"

It's time to turn these words into action!

It's time to empower American youth -- to inspire them to pursue careers in STEM and work to protect our planet for future generations.

It's time for all 50 states to follow in the footsteps of Maryland, where environmental education programs from pre-kindergarten through high school are required.

It's time for government agencies, philanthropic foundations and individuals to provide funding, support and resources to make outdoor, place-based learning a priority for all young people.

It's time for school districts, superintendents and principals to push beyond budget cuts and creatively find ways to provide new learning opportunities that go beyond the classroom.

And it's time for all of us to go back to our roots -- when family vacations meant an adventure to one of 397 national parks. When places like Yosemite National Park, Everglades National Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Grand Canyon National Park lit up the eyes of our children.

Let's re-start an old tradition -- one that will take you beyond the boundaries of your community and into the natural world. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Find a local Earth Day (April 22) event for you and your family.
  • Reconnect with your local national park during National Park Week (April 21-29, 2012) for free admission.
  • Support your local K-12 school during National Environmental Education Week (April 15-21) and discover the role environmental education plays in the lives of today's children.

Let's stop talking about what we "need to do" and chart a course toward the future. Let's continue to create new research-based curricula around key issues such as climate change and ensure this work reflects the true interdisciplinary nature of environmental education -- from STEM and social studies to history and literature. But most of all, let's help our nation's youth unplug and rediscover the profound beauty and mystery that lies just outside.

It's time. In fact, it's past time.