Kids need to run around for their health, but a new study published in the medical journal PLOS ONE finds that children who spend time in nature increase their cognitive abilities as well as environmental literacy. Perhaps most surprising, researchers found black and Latino students benefited from this kind of education more than their white peers.
The research team tested environmental literacy, or knowledge of environmental concerns, in sixth and eighth graders at 18 schools in North Carolina. Nine of the schools offered environmental literacy programs through the state. Using existing curricula like Project Learning Tree, Project WET or Project WILD, teachers instructed students on issues like recycling and water conservation in an outdoor setting. After completing the program, students were evaluated for their knowledge of current environmental issues as well as their attitudes toward the environment. Results indicated that students who completed these programs learned more than their counterparts in traditional classroom settings and that black and Latino students showed more improvement in cognitive skills and understanding of the environment. Sixth graders seemed to integrate the information better than the eighth graders in the study, leading researchers to believe these programs should begin in early middle school.
The study's authors say these programs are important not just because they teach specific information about the challenges we face, but because they also teach children to think critically and develop problem-solving skills.