Environmental education plays a crucial role in K–12 schools by equipping students with the knowledge, skills, and values needed to become environmentally responsible citizens. By integrating environmental education across the curriculum, schools have the opportunity to shape the next generation’s understanding and stewardship of the world around them.
That’s why organizations and districts around the world are stepping up to the plate, implementing climate change into curricula and working to promote environmental education across all areas of young people’s lives. For example, UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) program aims to drive personal and societal transformation of climate change through partnerships, networking, and innovative approaches, with the goal to give “learners of all ages the knowledge, skills, values and agency to address interconnected global challenges including climate change, loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of resources, and inequality.”
And recently, the Center for Green Schools hosted a webinar titled “Climate Change Education Across the Nation: How State Policy Is Delivering Impact.” During the webinar, panelists shared first hand stories about the effects of state climate legislation at the district level. Their experiences in creating, advocating for, and implementing climate education legislation serve as examples for other states to follow.
In this article, we’ll outline the top 10 reasons why implementing environmental education is crucial for K–12 schools, exploring its far-reaching benefits and impact.
1. Foster Environmental Awareness
Environmental education plays a critical role in increasing students’ awareness of pressing environmental issues, such as climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. It fosters a sense of responsibility and motivates students to take action in order to protect our planet. By spreading awareness about the fragility and indispensability of the physical environment, we can initiate efforts to address that which threatens it.
Schools are one of the best places for cultivating environmental awareness early on. The Foundation for Environmental Education, a global initiative that formed in 1994, works to encourage young people to become environmentally conscious by helping to establish environmental education programs in schools across 68 countries. Between the program’s inception and 2019, it had already reached 19 million students and 1.4 million teachers in 52,000 schools.
2. Encourage Sustainable Practices
Environmental education in schools promotes sustainable practices among students, fostering a lifelong commitment to sustainability. Through hands-on, real-world activities, children develop critical thinking and a sense of environmental responsibility. They also gain an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all living things and learn about the impact of human actions on the environment.
Environmental education develops environmentally conscious individuals who are dedicated to sustainable practices and conservation. It empowers children to be advocates for a better future, instilling values of responsibility and empathy. Environmental education has the potential to cultivate numerous young people who understand the importance of environmental stewardship for the benefit of future generations.
3. Enhance Critical Thinking Skills
Environmental education promotes critical thinking and problem-solving skills among students by presenting real-world environmental challenges. Through analyzing complex issues, evaluating evidence, and developing innovative solutions, students are effectively prepared to tackle future environmental and societal challenges.
By encouraging students to analyze information, evaluate evidence, and draw logical conclusions, STEAM/STEM and environmental education equips them with essential 21st-century skills necessary for navigating the complexities of the modern world.
4. Connect Classroom to Real-World Contexts
Serving as a bridge between classroom learning and real-world applications, environmental education connects the classroom to everyday life––making it more powerful and relevant for students. By engaging in field trips, outdoor activities, and hands-on experiences, students have the opportunity to directly observe and interact with the natural environment, fostering a deeper understanding and connection to the world around them.
An example of this integration can be seen in Michigan, where citizen science and place-based education have been successfully intertwined. Students in the state actively participate in addressing local problems. They have contributed to the conservation of Lake Huron’s biodiversity, mapped habitats of threatened and endangered species, restored native fisheries, monitored vernal pools, preserved cultural resources, and participated in marine debris cleanup activities alongside Great Lakes scientists and natural resource professionals. These projects not only enable students to tackle critical Great Lakes and local environmental issues, but also provide them with valuable knowledge and skills as part of their regular school curriculum.
5. Promote Health and Well-Being
Studies show that exposure to nature and environmental education positively impact children’s mental and physical health. In addition, studies demonstrate that engaging with nature reduces stress, improves focus, and promotes overall well-being, leading to healthier and happier people.
“There is mounting evidence, from dozens and dozens of researchers, that nature has benefits for both physical and psychological human well being,” said Lisa Nisbet, PhD, a psychologist at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. “You can boost your mood just by walking in nature, even in urban nature. And the sense of connection you have with the natural world seems to contribute to happiness even when you’re not physically immersed in nature.”
Source: Nurtured by nature
Spending time in nature can also help young, overwhelmed brains. Research has shown that interacting with nature has incredible cognitive benefits. In a 2019 review, University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman, PhD, and his student Kathryn Schertz reported that green spaces near schools promote cognitive development in children and green views near children’s homes promote self-control behaviors. Further, experiments have found that being exposed to natural environments improves working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control.
6. Cultivate Environmental Stewardship
How do you instill a sense of environmental stewardship in a student population obsessed with the modern complexities of technology? Environmental education offers students the ability to learn about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the importance of biodiversity, and their personal role in protecting and preserving the environment for future generations.
The term “environmental stewardship” includes a wide range of actions aimed at protecting and sustaining the environment. While these actions may include establishing protected areas, reforestation efforts, sustainable resource management practices, pollution reduction measures, community gardening initiatives, habitat restoration projects, and the promotion of sustainable products, experts argue that the change has to happen internally and personally.
A report from the National Library of Medicine highlights the importance of environmental stewardship as a holistic concept that guides productive and long-lasting relationships with the environment. This report, along with other thought leadership resources, emphasizes the connection between local communities and their environment, recognizing that when the environment becomes personal and local, its importance becomes magnified.
7. Develop Science Literacy
Integrating environmental education into the curriculum enhances science literacy by helping students gain a solid foundation in ecological concepts, scientific inquiry, and data analysis, enabling them to understand and contribute to scientific advancements.
A report by California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a long-time champion of science literacy, stated: “We live in an era of easy access to technology, where it is often simpler for students to stay indoors than to venture outside and discover how to learn from and engage with the world around them. Fostering environmental literacy gives educators the opportunity to nurture the ‘whole child,’ to learn about and understand nature, and to inspire students to ask meaningful questions about the world around them and their role in it.”
8. Foster Global Citizenship
By learning about global environmental issues, students gain a broader perspective, understand the interconnectedness of the world, and develop empathy towards diverse communities and ecosystems.
Researchers and educators stress the importance of integrating global perspectives and cross-cultural understanding across all subjects in order to instill a “bigger than me” value with which students can identify. According to author Ishita Jain, global citizenship also often “requires collaboration between educators, policymakers, and communities to create inclusive and culturally diverse learning environments. Furthermore, the use of technology and digital tools can facilitate global collaborations and connect students with peers from different parts of the world, fostering a sense of global community.”
9. Encourage Career Opportunities
Exposing students to a wide range of career opportunities in environmental fields, such as conservation, sustainability, renewable energy, and environmental policy can be encouraged through environmental education, and play a big role in shaping our future.
From jobs in the nonprofit sectors, education, and in government organizations, environmental education combines real-world, practical experience with academics, allowing students to explore and pursue a host of future-imperative opportunities post graduation.
From education centers to organizations coordinating eco-advocacy activities to institutions compiling environmental research to government organizations like the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and more, the world is filled with careers that rely on environmental education to help shape and evolve their programs.
10. Empower Youth Voice and Action
Empowering students to use their voice and take action on environmental issues also nurtures leadership skills, civic engagement, and activism, enabling students to make a positive impact on their communities and advocate for environmental change.
According to one peer-reviewed journal report, “one way to increase civic engagement among youth is through environmental education, which aims to increase awareness, knowledge, and behaviors associated with natural processes and environmental challenges. Environmental education, however, is more complex than simply sharing information about natural processes and climate change, it must also include effective strategies for solving emerging environmental challenges.”
And we’ve seen in recent years that young people are already excited about joining the cause to advocate for the environment. Youth across the world continue to demand stronger action from the educational, political, and industrial organizations around them. That means it’s up to our educational system to make the commitment to improve and advance climate change education.
At the end of the day, environmental education is not a mere afterthought in a curriculum; it is an indispensable cornerstone of any K–12 institution. It goes beyond textbooks and classrooms, empowering students to embrace environmental awareness, champion sustainability, sharpen critical thinking, and embrace global citizenship. With these powerful tools at their disposal, students will be primed to take on the complex environmental challenges of our time and emerge as responsible stewards of the planet.
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