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If we expect students to engage in civic learning, we need to provide them with real-life opportunities, such as direct involvement in trail maintenance and ecological restoration.

arrow "Trail Tracks" editorial from the Summer 2011 issue of the American Trails Magazine


The state of environmental education and implications for America’s trails

By Jennifer Rigby, American Trails Board

photo of people on boardwalk

Trails can serve as outdoor laboratories for students learning
about nature and the environment


Like other important endeavors, environmental education has had a tumultuous year. The ever-changing colors on the nation’s mood ring are cause for confusion. On one hand, we’ve witnessed a recommendation by the House Appropriations Committee to eliminate funding for EPA’s environmental education programs.

Citing a “lack of demonstrated results,” it appears the Committee membership neglected to read the large volume of scientifically valid research that clearly demonstrates the connection between high quality environmental education programs and improved academic achievement, critical thinking, and behavior among students.

On the other hand, we can cautiously celebrate Federal recommendations for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. After years of witnessing the erosion of science, social studies, and physical education due to the intense focus on math and reading proficiency, educators stand a chance of reinvigorating their curriculum and weaving environmental education into it. In fact, for the first time in U.S. history, the terms environmental education and environmental literacy appear in the Federal lexicon.

We also await Congressional review of the bipartisan No Child Left Inside (NCLI) Act of 2011, introduced by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD). NCLI is a proposed amendment to the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. If passed, NCLI will:

• Require states to develop environmental literacy plans for pre-kindergarten through grade 12 that include environmental education standards and teacher training.

• Direct the Secretary to award Environmental Education Professional Development Grants to states and, through them, competitive sub-grants to partnerships that include environmental education curricula that advance the teaching of interdisciplinary courses.

• Authorize competitive matching grants to partnerships that include a local education agency and, permissibly, other educational entities, federal, state, regional, or local natural resource or environmental agencies, or park and recreation departments, for activities to improve and support environmental education that include: (1) advancing content and achievement standards; (2) developing or disseminating innovations or model programs; and (3) research.

What does this have to do with trail design and use?

According to NCLI, in order to qualify for grant assistance, a state must develop an environmental literacy plan. Though there is flexibility in how a state creates such a plan, the document must contain certain elements, including a description of how and where environment-based instruction will take place.

Establishing partnerships with local natural resource or environmental agencies and park and recreation departments— all of which manage trails— will be encouraged. Teachers finally will be able to ASK THEIR STUDENTS TO LEAVE (the classroom, that is, and take their studies outdoors).

Without waiting for a Federal decision about NCLI, we need to move forward and continue marketing our trail systems to the education community. We need to remind teachers and administrators that trail experiences offer rich venues for outdoor learning and service learning, as well as health and fitness.

If we expect students to learn about the environment, they had best be steeped in it. If we expect students to engage in civic learning, we need to provide them with real-life opportunities, such as direct involvement in trail maintenance and ecological restoration.

While Congress banters about, many states are developing their own environmental literacy plans. In fact, 47 states are in varying stages of such development. Maryland went further: its State Board of Education recently approved an environmental literacy graduation requirement, making it the first state in the country to pass this requirement for high school graduation.

We have a huge opportunity to give our trail systems an increasingly prominent role in both formal and non-formal education settings. Now is a good time to stay informed about No Child Left Inside, as well as other state and Federal initiatives that could influence environmental education efforts in your region. I say we pitch the mood ring and start talking to teachers and administrators. We owe it to our children.

Jenny Rigby, director of The Acorn Group, is a nationally certified interpretive planner. She holds a master’s degree in science education and serves as a board member of American Trails. She is involved in State and Federal education reform efforts to build environmental literacy and get children back into the outdoors.

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