OCEAN CITY – Local environmental groups this week applauded the passage by the House of the No Child Left Inside Act, a bill which, if approved, could funnel federal funding into environmental education with the intent of getting kids out from in front of a television screen or computer monitor and back outside to connect with their natural world.
The U.S. House of Representatives last Thursday approved the No Child Left Inside Act (NCLI), legislation aimed at expanding and improving environmental education. Fostered through the House by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, the intent of the legislation is to provide federal financial support to the states to offer high quality environmental lessons to their traditional curriculums in an effort to broaden the educational experiences for students across the country.
It is no coincidence the title of the legislation, No Child Left Inside, mimics the well-established No Child Left Behind Act, a bill passed several years ago to mandate minimum proficiency scores on standardized tests in traditional study areas like reading and math with success tied to federal funding for public education. In most school districts, curriculum changes geared toward success on the high stakes tests have come at the expense of broader course work including environmental studies.
While No Child Left Behind remains a priority and federal funding will continue to be based largely on success on the tests, the NCLI initiative could help funnel additional funding toward environmental education. According to Sarbanes, who remains on the front lines of the legislation, the bill is needed at this time to provide more opportunities for young people to get outside and explore nature and spend less time in front of a computer monitor.
“This initiative aims to give children opportunities outside the classroom to learn how to become our next generation of environmental stewards,” he said. “We’ve made real progress in ensuring environmental education will become a priority in our schools. In Congress, we are grateful to the No Child Left Inside coalition for all of its hard work and we’re now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The rapidly growing NCLI coalition is made up of over 745 organizations nationwide concerned with issues related to the environment, education, hunting and fishing, outdoor recreation and public health as well as several businesses and faith-based organizations. The coalition has members in all 50 states and represents more than 40 million people who understand the need to teach students about nature and the challenges it faces.
Locally, several organizations have been on the front lines in the effort to nudge NCLI forward, including the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and the Assateague Coastal Trust, for example. While many area students are somewhat ahead of the curve compared to other children across the state and the country because of the abundance of opportunities to get out and explore nature right in their backyards, there is still much work to be done.
“This is not just about the legislation in particular,” said Maryland Coastal Bays Program Education Coordinator Carrie Samis. “This is critical for children’s social, emotional and cognitive development. A lot of kids are spending six to eight hours a day in front of a screen and less than one hour a day outdoors.”
While No Child Left Inside would help address the so-called “nature deficit disorder” for students, the same principals can be applied to adults, many of whom are spending less and less time outdoors in nature.
“It represents something bigger than that,” said Kim Quillen, who heads up the Assateague Coastal Trust’s Coast Kids program. “I think it represents a change in our culture. Our culture has adjusted away from spending time outdoors and exploring and learning about nature for a variety of reasons.”
Quillen said the not-so-subtle goals of NCLI are carrying over to a broader appeal to turn off computers and televisions for both children and adults.
“There has been this epiphany across the country,” she said. “If we, children and adults, spend more time outdoors, we will improve our physical health, our mental health and our environmental awareness. This act approved last week by the House is a way to make that happen. If it starts in the schools, it will carry over when those students become adults.”
Samis said it is going on to some degree already in the local area, but the NCLI Act, if approved, will expand the opportunities.
“This will help make more outdoor experiences available to kids that can’t be replicated in the classroom,” she said. “We’re ideally located here with the Chesapeake and coastal bays and the Atlantic Ocean and this could provide more funding to take better advantage of those resources.”
Quillen said most people enjoy outdoor experiences already but are reluctant to pursue them for a variety of reasons.
“We all enjoy canoeing on the Pocomoke, but we don’t run out and do it every Saturday,” she said. “Our busy lives prevent us from doing that, but there are more good reasons for doing it than the excuses offered. You can see children playing a computer game where they are canoeing on a river when the real thing is just outside.”