July 2012 – Children today spend far less time outdoors interacting with the natural world than previous generations did. As we noted in February in our Connecticut State of the Birds 2012 report, “Where Is the Next Generation of Conservationists Coming From,” we think that will have serious implications for conservation in coming decades.
There Are No Simple Solutions
Helping create the next generation of conservationists will require solutions as seemingly easy as parents insisting that kids go outdoors or as complicated as changes to school curricula, pursued by families, schools, non-profit organizations and government.
We followed the report by organizing four community forums based on the same theme. Almost 120 people participated, including two dozen experts from around the state.
Our conclusion, based on what we heard in each forum and on our own analysis, is that the problem will require a broad array of solutions – as simple as parents insisting that kids go outdoors or as complicated as changes to school curricula – pursued by families, schools, non-profit organizations and government.
Participants at each forum identified similar causes: Parents either don’t let or don’t encourage their children to go outside enough. Kids prefer the virtual world of computers and smart phones to the real world of nature. When kids are not using their computers, their time is often highly structured and tightly scheduled. Schools are ill-prepared to teach ecology and environmental science or can’t fit it into their curricula.
But in addition to an intelligent articulation of the problem, we also heard enough ideas to leave us cautiously optimistic that solutions do exist and that there are people and organizations that want to help carry them out.
Not that it will be quick or easy or simple.
“There’s not just one approach that’s going to solve this issue,” said Laura Magnotta, program director of the Wakeman Boys and Girls Club, at the Fairfield forum. “There has to be instructional time; we need safe places for parents to take their kids; we need environmental education programs. There’s going to have to be many angles, many approaches.”
At Connecticut Audubon Society, our intention is to incorporate a number of the ideas expressed at the forums into our education programs, both the new Science in Nature curriculum we have designed for students, and our general youth-oriented programs.
We also intend to explore partnerships with other organizations that have an interest in the issue, in hopes of broadening our reach. We will continue the public discussion of the issue in the fall of 2012 by organizing additional forums in partnership with other organizations.
The four community forums elicited numerous useful perspectives on, and solutions to, the problem. We have organized them into three categories: for Parents and Families, for Schools, and for us to pursue at Connecticut Audubon Society.
Two final introductory thoughts:
First, although we certainly believe that Connecticut – and the world – would benefit from more professional conservationists, naturalists or environmental scientists, our primary goal is to help create the next generation of conservation-minded citizens. We want conservation and the environment to be an integral part of daily life, from the way we run our households to the candidates we choose in the voting booth.
Milan Bull, CAS senior director of science and conservation
Second, although childhood is an ideal time to form a lasting bond with nature, we also heard from people who did not form that bond until college, or young adulthood, or middle age, or retirement age. In other words, it’s never too late.
Parents and Families
At each forum, participants said that parents should be more assertive in encouraging their children to spend time outdoors, and less fearful about doing so, but that computers, gaming, smart phones and social media are an enormous challenge to overcome.
“When I was a kid, TV was the big scare,” Tom Swarr, co-chair of the Chemical Innovation Institute at UConn and a former CAS regional board member, said at the Glastonbury forum. “Everyone was worried that TV would keep kids indoors and consume all their time. Now its computers and games.”
Everyone agreed that in its variety, its pervasiveness and its ability to connect kids with each other, today’s technology is different from what preceded it. TV had a limited number of channels; the Internet is all but infinite. TV watching was confined to a specific place; smart phones go almost everywhere. TV watching was something you did for a limited time in a limited space, before or after doing something else; social media is non-stop.
Richard Telford, a teacher at Woodstock Academy, pointed out at the Pomfret forum that when he started teaching 19 years ago, no students had cell phones, there was no texting and the Internet was largely unknown. Now, he said, “The devouring power of social media just eats up time.”
Jackie Bellanceau, a senior at Woodstock Academy, said her parents carefully limited her time on the computer and encouraged her to go outside. That helped steer her toward the career as a conservation biologist she is looking forward to. But the reality was that when she followed her parents’ wishes and left the computer for the outdoors, she was usually by herself – no other kids were out there.
One of the solutions, participants agreed, is for parents to simply be more firm with their children. Limit computer time, as Jackie Bellanceau’s parents did. Be properly cautious but overcome irrational fears – of ticks, of kidnappers, of injuries. Take advantage of the tendency of younger kids to be willing to do anything with their mother or father – including exploring the shore or the woods – while also acknowledging that that tendency fades during adolescence.
Pamela Iacono, a panelist at the Fairfield forum, said she grew up exploring the outdoors in Monroe, with two younger brothers. She now has three boys of her own: “They don’t do enough of what I used to do. I have to keep reminding myself to let go. I gave them a shovel and said go outside and dig, because we don’t do enough of that these days, to get messy and get dirty.”
A connection with nature may start at home but schools are enormously important as well. At each of the forums, teachers, parents and students all said there was plenty of room for improvement on the state level, within school districts, in individual classes, and even among the students themselves.
At the Milford Point forum, April Kelley, a science teacher at Lauralton Hall in Milford, said she always notes the amazement of the students she takes outside on environmental science field trips. Part of it is their amazement at the beauty and intricacy of nature, she said, but another part is their amazement at encountering something they are largely unfamiliar with.
Science seems to be a particular weakness for elementary school teachers, who have to be generalists. Sandee Brown, a recently-retired teacher who participated in the Glastonbury forum, said that when she was planning a field trip for one of her elementary school classes, she would invite a less-experienced colleague to bring her class along as well. In that way, twice as many students got the benefit of her teaching, and the other teacher developed experience and confidence to try it alone.
High school students who participated in the forums said the problem is deeply entrenched in the academic system.
Caroline Hron Weigle, a high school senior who participated in the Fairfield forum, said the biggest concern for high school students was: What do I have to do to get into a good college? That requires concentrating on grades and participating in extracurricular activities. Because high schools “teach to the test” to meet state standards, almost everything students learn is from textbooks.
Her perspective was echoed by a high school student who was in the audience at Glastonbury. “There is hardly any experiential teaching in high school,” he said. “There’s no time for it because we’re working to get good grades and the way it’s set up now, you get good grades by studying, writing papers, working indoors.”
Connecticut Audubon Society
We strongly believe there is an important, increased role for conservation organizations to provide both structured programs that meet state educational standards and less structured programs that provide kids with meaningful outdoor learning experiences while also giving them (especially older kids) a moderate amount of freedom to pursue less-traveled paths.
Connecticut Audubon Society intends to be a statewide leader in this.
What Connecticut Audubon Society Will Do
1. Establish a new Science in Nature education program
2. Inaugurate Young Naturalists clubs for middle school-age kids
3. Start an outdoor adventure camp for kids in 6th grade and up
4. Establish meaningful internships for high school students
In May, we introduced our new Science in Nature education program, to provide K-12 students with outdoor, hands-on, inquiry-based education experiences. The centerpiece of Science in Nature is an education series called Climate, Geology, Adaptations. Based on state and national science, math and literacy standards, the series is designed to give students the unique opportunity to process classroom-taught concepts in real-world ecosystems.
We will inaugurate Science in Nature in the fall with programs for Fairfield and Bridgeport public and private schools, and will expand throughout the state in coming years.
At the forums, students and adults noted that when kids reach middle-school age there is both a drop-off in interest in nature, partly because it’s perceived as being “uncool,” and a lack of age-appropriate nature programs. Kids who are interested in nature often have no one to share their interest with.
|2012 Community Forums
Connecticut Audubon Society will continue the public discussion
To help fill that gap, Connecticut Audubon Society will start young naturalists clubs, with increasing privileges to keep kids engaged as they get older. In our Young Birder’s Club, for example, participants will start by observing bird banding and will eventually be able to actually band birds. Other clubs we are considering include nature photography, hiking, junior staff and wetlands ecology.
We are also formulating a plan to start an outdoor adventure camp for kids in sixth grade and above.
High school students who participated in the forums told us about the conflict they faced between their wish to spend more time outdoors and their need to participate in activities that help them get into college.
To help address that, Connecticut Audubon Society will provide meaningful internships for high school students as “resume builders” so they don’t have to choose between a program that looks good on their college applications and engaging in conservation activities that are serious, rewarding and fun. These internships will include research, field experience, and leadership skill building. Our goal is to start these internships next year.