Outdoor Engagement State of Play Part II: Education Standards

December 16, 2019



NCEL Point of Contact

Dylan McDowell
Executive Director


Education about the environment isn’t limited to outdoor experiences. By bringing environmental concepts into the classroom, states are preparing students to consider their connection to nature and the importance of conservation as part of their standard coursework. 

The EPA defines environmental education as a “process that allows individuals to explore environmental issues, engage in problem solving, and take action to improve the environment.” Many people are familiar with this process from visiting a local park or science center, but more states are now integrating environmental education into school curriculum through courses including history, math, and most commonly science. 

In 2011, Maryland established an Environmental Literacy High School Graduation Requirement through executive order to ensure that every student in the state will receive “comprehensive, multi-disciplinary environmental education” tied to current curriculum offerings. This groundbreaking initiative offers a flexible framework for schools to further environmental education in the school system. While the requirement did not include funding, many groups in Maryland are providing professional development training and sample curriculum. 

Other states have also taken steps to ensure environmental concepts are incorporated into the classroom. For example, Washington state (WAC 392-410-115) ensures that “instruction about conservation, natural resources, and the environment” is taught at all grade levels with a special emphasis on human adaptation to the environment. 

California has gone further by developing model K-12 curriculum (AB 1548, 2003; SB 720, 2018) that teaches environmental literacy as part of core academic content standards. Nearly 25,000 teachers in 4,600 schools across the states have received professional development in these standards and 9.1 million student lessons have been distributed to schools. This curriculum is available for adaptation in other states and more information can be found here.

Opportunities exist to offer both immersive learning experiences in nature alongside curriculum changes. In many cases, adding environmental concepts into other coursework such as history or math can provide tangible examples from the real world. Field experiences then allow students to see these examples firsthand.

The first blog post in this series highlighted Oregon’s Outdoor School program (SB439; 2015), which provides up to a week of residential outdoor school for every fifth or sixth grade student in the state. That program has provided a total of 115,131 days outside for more than 30,000 students who have participated across the state. 

Additionally, Washington state established an Outdoor Preschool Pilot Program (SB5357; 2017) and the first preschool was officially licensed this year on Orcas Island. The Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Families also released an official report about the Outdoor, Nature-Based Early Learning and Child Care Pilot Project, which includes a review of the program and recommendations going forward. 

Both the Oregon and Washington examples provide opportunities to get students outside of a typical classroom to experience environmental concepts firsthand. In 2019, Maryland enacted the Green Schools Act (SB 662/HB 1366) which offers a combination of both classroom and outdoor components. The bill supports grants to schools for a variety of projects including outdoor learning experiences and schoolyard habitat. A total of $1.6 million is authorized over six years and this money will collectively ensure students have environmental concepts integrated into the classroom and field experiences. You can read more about the law here

Despite these innovative programs, there have been multiple efforts to prohibit or limit additional environmental education, particularly climate change, education in school curriculum. An analysis by the Associated Press in 2019 found at least 10 states had such bills that would have prevented climate change education or categorize it as a controversial topic. 

State legislators are already preparing for bills to increase outdoor experiences and incorporate new topics into the existing curriculum in the 2020 State Legislative session. NCEL recently partnered with several leading outdoor engagement organizations to create the Youth Outdoor Policy Playbook as a resource for state legislators. This toolkit includes a policy framework focused on Environmental Literacy and Education that highlights a variety of ideas and successful examples of how states can enact policies that support educational opportunities.

Whether states incorporate environmental concepts into existing lessons, enable more outdoor learning opportunities, or develop new curriculum, children will better understand the natural world and be more inclined to conserve it for future generations. 

Part III of this blog will explore the health and wellness benefits associated with time outdoors, including field experiences for students and therapeutic excursions for veterans experiencing PTSD.