This paper is a keynote address delivered by Dr. Louise Chawla for the American Association for Teaching and Curriculum. The focus of the paper is on the value of nature-based learning (NBL) for academic achievement and ecological citizenship. As clearly articulated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), troubling changes in extreme weather and climate events are a reality. These changes also represent a social justice issue, as the most vulnerable people tend to be the ones most negatively impacted by climate change. Dr. Chawla asks, “How are educational policies and practices responding to global environmental changes?” She suggests that the emerging evidence-based field of NBL may has a lot to offer in addressing this concern.
Several years ago, the Children & Nature Network, along with several affiliated research partners, formed a Collaborative Research Network on the Science of Nature-based Learning. They define NBL as “an educational approach that uses the natural environment as the context for learning.” Evidence in support of NBL continues to grow. The benefits of learning outdoors in a natural setting include enhanced student interest and engagement, improved social interactions and cognitive functioning, and enhanced sense of well-being. Some studies show that additional benefits associated with the greening of schoolyards include reduced stress and less absenteeism. The benefits associated with NBL apply to students at all levels of education – from preschool through high school -- and seem to apply especially to students from low-income and ethnic minority groups. NBL may thus help close the academic achievement gap between students from different socio-economic backgrounds.
The greening of schoolyards and other NBL-related activities also give students opportunities to learn about the natural environment. While NBL takes a variety of forms and can be implemented in a variety of settings, direct access to nature is a common element. Research indicates that direct engagement with the natural world and the involvement of a caring adult play a key role in developing pro-environmental values and behaviors. With NBL, teachers are in a unique position for fostering students' understanding of their connections with nature and their reliance on intact ecosystems. NBL-related practices shown to be most effective in promoting pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors include (1) active involvement on the part of the students, (2) meaningful connections to the students' homes, communities and regions, and (3) opportunities to experience nature-related activities over a longer period.
Dr. Chawla concludes her presentation by highlighting ways in which NBL and climate action can come together offering benefits for both students and the natural world. She also calls attention to the importance of graduating students who understand the natural world and climate science and who are motivated to protect the biosphere.