Research Summary

Developing, Implementing, and Evaluating a No-Child-Left-Inside Pilot Program

Evaluating an Experiential Family Outdoor Education Pilot Program

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

No Child Left Inside (NCLI) is a U.S. national movement encouraging youth to spend more time in nature, with the intention of increasing environmental literacy. The movement was initiated as a direct response to the growing disconnect between youth and nature, a trend attributed to technological advancements, people’s increasingly complex daily lives, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This Act refocused core K–12 curriculum on reading, mathematics, and science, leaving little time for other subject areas, including environmental education.

In 2012, an NCLI pilot program implemented in Cache Valley, Utah, sought to address this disconnection with nature within the local community through an annual week-long environmental education program available to families. Each day of the week included two educational sessions, which were led by volunteer naturalists and held at city parks, campgrounds, and other similar locations. The organizers designed each session to connect to the Utah Core Curriculum and focus on specific topics such as bugs, rocks and basic geology, edible plants, snakes and reptiles, birding, and fire safety. They designed the sessions to be hands-on and experiential, encouraging participants to, for example, touch living animals, catch and identify water insects, and investigate bug collections. The sessions also included activities that attempted to connect the onsite session back to participants’ homes; these activities included backyard birdhouse kits and nature journaling. The study on which this article reports assessed the program’s influence on children’s enthusiasm for nature-related behaviors, as well as the program’s ability to reach all children regardless of demographics.

To evaluate how this program influenced children’s enthusiasm for nature-based activities, the authors administered “post-then-pre” surveys, which were given at the end of each session and allowed children to reflect on their after-program and before-program attitudes. Children, with the assistance of their accompanying adults (parents, grandparents, or other guardians), answered 10 questions related to environmental attitudes and behavior on a Likert-type scale. The first eight questions focused on children’s excitement toward nature, such as “How excited are you to go exploring in the backyard?” and “How excited are you to learn more about wildlife, nature, or forests?” The last two questions focused on recycling, an environmental behavior that did not take place during the educational session, but that may have been impacted due to an overall increase in environmental awareness.

Adult participants took a demographic survey, which collected data related to age, household income, highest level of parental/guardian education, religious affiliation, marital status, race and ethnicity, and whether the family unit participated in or belonged to environmental conservation groups. The purpose of this survey was to evaluate whether the program participants represented the overall regional population or a fraction of it.

Of the 481 participants who attended 1 or more of the 11 educational sessions (this does not included children under the age of 1), 54 children (17%) and 31 adults (20%) completed the survey. Those who completed the children’s survey ranged from age 2 to 13, with more male children (64%) than female (36%) attending the environmental program.

Notably, children expressed increased excitement for each of the environmental behaviors represented in the survey after participating in the program. While these results are encouraging, they do not give insight into long-term excitement or participation in environmentally related behaviors, although similar studies conducted over an eight-month period indicate retention.

A closer look at the increase in excitement after participating in this NCLI pilot program shows an average increase of 0.7 on the 5-point Likert-type scale used in this instrument. While this is not a large change, it may be enough to suggest an overall increase in curiosity, interest, and willingness to explore the outdoors. Smaller increases were reported for the two questions on recycling; this may perhaps reflect the fact that the behavior of recycling was not addressed directly in the program.

Although the program clearly increased child participant enthusiasm toward nature, it did not effectively represent the demographics of the region. Latinos comprise 10% of the Cache Valley, but had no representation throughout the week of programs. With Latinos representing the fastest growing demographic group in the United States, it is critical that environmental education programs find ways to reach out and explicitly welcome participants from the Latino community. Barriers with this group may include unfamiliarity of environmental programs, language, or cost. The authors did not explain how participants were recruited for the programs in this study.

Another interesting result from the demographic survey was the lack of participation in prior environmental conservation programs. More than half (58%) of families reported that they had never participated in an environmental conservation program before, and a quarter of families (23%) reported that they participated in an environmental conservation program only once a year.

The Bottom Line

Giving families opportunities to engage in hands-on, nature-based activities—such as exploring natural areas and learning about wildlife—can increase children’s excitement toward environmental behaviors. This enthusiasm can continue to be fostered through activities in the program that connect the program with the visitors’ home environment, such as birdhouse building kits or backyard scavenger hunts. Nature journals can also help youth record and recall environmental experiences, extending the impact of the program. To recruit participants accurately representing the demographics of the community, additional efforts may be necessary, such as creating program flyers in various languages, advertising at cultural centers, and providing scholarships to low-income families.