Spending time in nature benefits children. Unarguably. And in most cases, the more time spent in nature, the better.
A quick Google search will pull up a long list of books, podcasts, magazines and newspaper articles, blog posts, and various other webpages celebrating the myriad benefits associated with time spent in nature. This is true for all of us, of course, but I am speaking here specifically about children and their connection to the natural world.
All types of nature-based activities convey benefits, whether it's a semi-structured outdoor sport or entirely unstructured play, hiking along trails or weekend camping, spending a sunny Saturday at a forested park near your home, or enrolling your child in an outdoor preschool. It's all good stuff!
Learning that takes place in natural settings and educational instruction taught through an environmental lens also benefits children -- immensely so. I'm taking here about the concept of Environmental Education (EE).
The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) describes EE as "a learning process that increases people’s knowledge and awareness about the environment and its associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action."
Based on this definition, then, environmental education involves:
Teaching people about the environment and issues impacting the environment;
Teaching them the skills to respond to issues impacting the environment; and
Teaching them to care about all of it.
As if teaching children about nature for nature's sake was not enough, EE has also been shown to enhance other academic skills and learning goals.
Increased understanding and knowledge of concepts in science, mathematics, reading, writing and other traditional "academic" subjects.
Enhanced skills development in communication, problem-solving and critical thinking, analytical skills, etc.
Improved social emotional skills, including leadership skills, personal development, improved self-esteem, and peer collaboration.
Development of environmentally beneficial behaviors, such as recycling, volunteering with environmental organizations, and reduced individual water use.
Heightened civic engagement and feelings of civic responsibility buttressed by an increased sense of empowerment.
Demonstrated enthusiasm for school and increased motivation to learn.
(And full disclosure: I love talking about environmental education. My entire graduate thesis focused on EE policy and instructional pedagogy in public education systems in the U.S. and abroad. I love this topic because it is interesting and, moreover, it is crucial to our children's health, wellbeing and their future.)
Surely, if a multitude of research studies show that being in nature and engaging in environmental education benefits children, then not only should we support such programming, but we should strive to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to partake in said programs.
Inclusion and equity must drive every aspect of curriculum development and programmatic design. However, as in most of areas of our society, advocates for inclusion and equity must remain vigilant in their work to continuously remind policymakers and community leaders of these issues.
Too often, in the realm of natural area management and environment education, children with disabilities cannot participate in environmental programs to the same extent as their non-disabled peers. In many cases, their participation is limited due to the fact that the designers of nature-based learning environments fail to account for accessibility needs. Admittedly, nature is not by nature the most accessible of places, but still, small steps can be taken when designing learning spaces that greatly enhance the ability of children with disabilities to physically access and engage in programming.
It is essential that EE programs and nature-based learning areas are designed specifically with physical accessibility in mind.
A personal story: There is a beautiful wildlife refuge near my family's home. The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is federal land, managed by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, and features a network of walking paths at ground level and across boardwalks through forested areas and river delta land. There is a nice visitor center, an educational facility, and a certified "outdoor classroom" geared toward young learners.
I visited this outdoor classroom during a recent trip with my two young sons. The sign at the entrance to the outdoor classroom space identified its goal of "connecting children with nature," and surely, that was the intent behind the built design.
However, it was easy to see when visiting with my five-year-old son, who is a wheelchair-user, that the classroom could not possibly serve to connect all children with nature.
The space was not designed to provide the accessibility necessary to connect kids with physical disabilities to nature, if those kids, like my son, utilize mobility devices like wheelchairs or walkers. If that public agency were to offer summer camps or learning opportunities within that classroom space, my son and other Disabled kids like him, would be functionally excluded from participation.
An outdoor learning space, or EE classroom, that fails to support certain demographics of children, based on their immutable characteristics, cannot and should not be classified as an inclusive space serving all children.
While there may be no question as to the good intentions of the designers, the impact of the design of such spaces, where they are inaccessible, remains problematic.
It doesn't need to be this way!
There are easy ways that an outdoor classroom can be adapted for accessibility and a more inclusive design.
1. Create accessible pathways. Remove loose material, such as gravel from paths, and replace it with a solid ground cover. There are natural and/or permeable ground cover options that are far more accessible that gravel or engineered wood fiber/woodchips.
2. Ensure gathering spaces are accessible. Do not use loose ground cover in gathering spaces as this will impede some users from access and participation, leaving them to sit alone on the outside of the group. Look for a more solid ground cover alternative. Even hard-packed dirt is better for accessibility than loose material.
3. Remove elevated platforms lacking ramp access. Play areas built on platforms without adequate ramp access or room to maneuver a wheelchair once on the platform immediately excludes from participation any child (or adult supervisor) requiring mobility aids. Instead, remove the elevated platform and reinstall these play elements at ground level.
4. Install play tables for standing/wheelchair level engagement. Where stations in an outdoor learning environment are designed for ground play with children in a seated or crouched position, installing elevated tables or platforms that allow space for roll-under wheelchair use, can promote more inclusive play for all participants.
Research proves that all kids can benefit from learning in nature.
As land managers, environmental educators, and even regular taxpayers, we have an obligation to ensure that, truly, all kids are provided the opportunity to participate in nature-based programs.