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The following first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Baywatcher_blog
CBF's 42-foot, Coast Guard-inspected boat, "Baywatcher"

Many RVA residents have become spoiled by living near the James River and its wonderful amenities: stunning vistas, fishing, paddling, swimming, hiking, birding, and wildlife watching.

But imagine if the closest you ever got to the James was in a car driving over a Richmond bridge. What if you'd never dipped a toe in the river, cast a line to fish, or rock-hopped across the rapids to picnic or sunbathe? What if you'd never seen a great blue heron stalking the riverbank or touched the whiskers on a blue catfish? What if you'd never, ever seen a bald eagle soaring over the James?

Believe it or not, thousands of Richmond-area youngsters have never had such experiences. They are among a growing number of children suffering from nature deficit disorder, a term coined by Richard Louv, author of the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. It refers to a near-total unfamiliarity with the outdoors caused by a preoccupation with indoor electronic devices — televisions, computers, cellphones, electronic games and other gadgets. On average, kids 8 to 18 years old spend more than 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That's more than 50 hours a week.

Fortunately, a beautiful natural world still awaits anyone willing to disconnect from electronic gizmos and venture outdoors. And this year, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation celebrates 30 years of unplugging Richmond-area students and taking them outside onto the James to explore nature and the river.

Since CBF launched its James River Education Boat Program in 1985, some 55,000 students have participated in these hands-on, get-wet-and-dirty environmental education experiences. The kids board Baywatcher, a 42-foot, Coast Guard-inspected boat and one of CBF's many "floating classroom" vessels, and spend three to six hours on the water. There they read maps, identify landmarks, note shoreline land uses, take water samples, fish, crab, and ooh and aah at the critters they find.

But the boat trips are more than just fun days on the water. These science-based discovery experiences are led by professional environmental educators who reinforce knowledge and skills in Virginia's Standards of Learning and complement teachers' own classroom studies.

For many students, the CBF field experiences represent the first time they've ever been on a boat. For still others, the trips are watershed experiences that spark a lifelong love of science and nature. Many teachers have confided they were inspired to be science educators by a CBF discovery trip they took as youngsters. For testimonials and more about CBF's outdoor education experiences, go to cbf.org/education.

But environmental education provides other big benefits as well. Studies demonstrate that it:

  • Generally improves student achievement in science, likely because it connects classroom learning to the real world.
  • Improves student interest and engagement in the classroom. Students just seem to like environmental studies, opting to focus science fair and service projects on environmental topics more than any other.
  • Boosts reading, math and social studies achievement when integrated into other school subjects.
  • When used as a common thread in all classes, reduces student discipline problems, increases student enthusiasm, and generates greater pride and ownership in accomplishments.
  • Teaches critical thinking and basic life skills necessary for a 21st-century workforce.

All of which is why CBF encourages the McAuliffe administration and the Virginia General Assembly to make environmental literacy a priority in Virginia. A new Chesapeake Bay Agreement, signed last year by Governor McAuliffe and the other Chesapeake Bay partner states, includes an important environmental literacy goal: "Enable students in the region to graduate with the knowledge and skills to act responsibly to protect and restore their local watershed."

CBF urges the private and public sectors to work together in planning and funding a bold vision for all Virginia students to have the opportunity to become environmentally literate. Armed with this knowledge, Virginia students can become tomorrow's leaders, making sound decisions to restore the Chesapeake Bay and to protect Virginia's precious natural resources.

Still, it's hard to imagine the commonwealth will achieve these laudable environmental literacy goals unless more kids get outside and experience the wonders of nature. You just have to be there.

So during this Earth Day season, consider taking a young person you know to a park, on a hike, to a lake or stream, or just out into the backyard. Look around. Smell the air. Touch. Explore. You might even see a bald eagle and change a life.

—Ann Jennings, CBF's Virginia Executive Director

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