U.S. Forest Service: Unplugging America’s Children

U.S. Forest Service: Unplugging America’s Children

Remember the feeling of wind brushing against your cheek or the momentary gasp as your boot slid on a big, slippery rock? Or, what about trees bursting with brilliant fall colors or the chirp, hoot and rustle in the woods that made you ask, “Who’s there?” For many adults these memories are the stuff of their American childhood – rites of passage recalled with great affection and humor. For many, these experiences form the basis of a lifetime of enjoyment and caring for America’s great outdoors. That’s why the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) wants to make playing in nature outdoors fun for kids again.

Since 1905, USFS has prided itself on educating the public about the Nation’s natural resources, including the 193 million acres of forests and grasslands it manages. Today that legacy continues as the Forest Service’s Conservation Education Office supports a wide variety of programs directed at pre-K to 12th grade students, their parents and educators. Programs draw from work performed by Agency experts who provide guidance in science, land management and recreation, which serves as the foundation for environmental literacy efforts. USFS also promotes partnerships with organizations that support its mission.

These combined efforts are crucial to insure the health and welfare of America’s natural resources. More importantly, they are imperative for the health and welfare of its children. Today more young people are growing up with an urbanized lifestyle that keeps them indoors and plugged into electronics rather than meeting nature face-to-face. They spend 50 percent less time outdoors than their counterparts did 20 years ago, and approximately 17 percent aged 2 to 19 are obese. Another 14.8 percent are considered overweight [1]. The independent, nonprofit Institute of Medicine reports that childhood obesity has doubled within the past 30 years for preschoolers and adolescents, and more than tripled for children ages 6 to 11 [2].

Outdoor activity can help turn those numbers back to the day when children ventured outside before the dew lifted from the ground and after the last firefly made its presence known. Children who play outdoors in nature have lower stress levels and more active imaginations. They are more fit and lean; they develop stronger immune systems and have greater respect for themselves and others. And, children who spend time outdoors are more likely to become environmentally conscious adults. By engaging children in outdoor activities, America is nurturing tomorrow’s environmental stewards.

USFS State and Private Forestry, Research and Development, and National Forest System programs are instrumental in providing young people with exciting ways to learn about nature. They reach and educate people of all ages. To accomplish the Agency’s goals of developing environmental literacy and producing the next generation of environmental stewards, the Forest Service delivers programming through a wide range of venues, which reach more than four million students and educators annually. These numbers represent a large cross-section of America’s communities. Below is a sampling of USFS program offerings through its large network of practitioners and school districts:

Creating Pathways for Green Change

GreenSchools! is a joint partnership between USFS and Project Learning Tree. It is designed to build healthy, safe and environmentally friendly school learning environments; to enhance environmental literacy and to empower students to investigate ways of reducing their carbon footprint while “greening” their schools. The program provides a blueprint for educators, environmental and health advocates, school board members, parents and community members to create a healthy environment in which to promote sustainable practices and to teach students how to become responsible stewards of the community, Earth and its resources.

© iStockphoto.com/JBryson| the community, Earth and its resources.

© iStockphoto.com/JBryson

It also features professional development training for teachers and GreenSchools! Investigations for students to assess their school’s carbon footprint. The program also incorporates action plans for making schools greener as well as grants for schools’ service learning projects. Many USFS GreenSchools! have established school gardens, thus involving students and their local communities in exploring, growing and cooking healthy food. pltgreenschools.org

A Forest for Every Classroom (FFEC) is an intensive teacher training program emphasizing place-based education, service learning and the natural environment as an outdoor classroom. The FFEC national model provides an opportunity to bring public lands, resource professionals and formal educators together to develop long-term community relationships. It is designed to perpetuate use of the nation’s forests as a learning environment by connecting communities and public lands to schools through participating teachers. The latter develop curriculums that increase and foster student literacy skills and student understanding of and appreciation for forested lands. These curricula integrate hands-on study of local community natural and cultural resources, thus addressing concepts in ecology, sense of place, civics and forest land management and stewardship. This model has been adapted for “Rails for Every Classroom” and “Parks for Every Classroom.”

Climate Change Literacy Programs are a primary component of Forest Service conservation education. USFS, in partnership with other Federal agencies and non-governmental organizations, is uniquely positioned to provide high-quality, science-based education and outreach on the role of forests and grasslands and effects of climate change. Forest Service researchers have studied the impacts of climate change and air pollutants on forests and grasslands for more than 30 years. This research has identified and continues to identify trends and subsequent effects to ecosystems across the United States.

USFS Climate Change Literacy Programs promote connection of youth to nature, development of environmental literacy, understanding of climate change and ways each person can help mitigate its effects. Because today’s generation will pass complicated environmental problems to future generations, the Forest Service endeavors to help prepare students for these real-world 21st Century challenges. USFS believes the next generation must possess not only a solid understanding of these problems, but also the basic tools to overcome them. The Agency is working hard to help future Americans make informed life choices.

The Network of Children’s Forests began in 2010 through an active partnership between USFS and an innovative group of nonprofit and private sector partners. The program places special emphasis on connecting kids in neighboring communities to one forest per region. This encourages increased outdoor activity through long-standing successful conservation education programs. This innovative, contemporary approach reaches youth by creating pathways out of poverty. It exposes them to new career ideas and opportunities, pairs them with education and mentorship programs, and expands citizen stewardship of the nation’s public lands.

Importantly, the forest serves as a lynchpin for the community to create a network of outdoor spaces to get kids and families outside and active – from backyards and schoolyards to local and state parks to the nation’s public lands. Pilot Children’s Forests have been huge successes. Young people are learning new skills for potential careers, participating in fun outdoor recreation and volunteering on local restoration projects. www.fs.fed.us/news/2011/releases/04/mkiw-recipients.shtml

© iStockphoto.com/aquaspects

© iStockphoto.com/aquaspects

Hands on the Land is a national network of field classrooms connecting students, teachers and parents to their public lands and waterways. It features a dynamic web portal; sponsors and supports nationwide, multi-agency projects; and leverages land management and agency resources. The National Environmental Education Foundation facilitates the partnership in conjunction with the Department of the Interior (National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), the Department of Agriculture (Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. handsontheland.org

Latino Legacy builds youth place-based connections through family experiences on forest lands. It focuses on both urban and rural minority communities to build relationships between Latino communities, resource management agencies and public lands. latinolegacy.org

Inspiring Conservation via Technology

Discover the Forest media campaign is a USFS and Ad Council Public Service Advertising campaign to inspire “tweens” (aged 8-12) and their parents to reconnect and to experience nature first-hand. The campaign brings joy and excitement to kids who discover the wonders of nature, thus helping to create an interest in and lifelong relationship with their environment. The new curriculum, developed by and distributed to teachers, includes an interactive game, “Forest Snapshot,” information on where to find parks and forests, and social networking tools such as Twitter, blogs and Facebook. In 2010 the site won a Google Creative Canvas Award, one of only 20 awarded that year for creative use of Google maps technology. In 2011 the campaign focuses on “tween” parents and caregivers with a new “Unplug” campaign designed to showcase the advantages of “unplugging” from electronic devices and interacting with nature first-hand. discovertheforest.com

Distance Learning Initiatives have been an integral part of USFS conservation education for many years. One such program focuses on pollinators. Although some come in small sizes, they play a large and often undervalued role in the production of the food we eat, the health of flowering plants and the future of wildlife. A decline in numbers and health of pollinators within the last several years poses a significant threat to biodiversity integrity, to global food webs and to human health, according to scientists.

During the 2008-09 school year, MonarchLIVE! broadcast and webcast from several points along the monarch butterfly migration route. Expanding on the program’s success, PollinatorLIVE! brought the world of pollinators, gardening and conservation to students, educators and communities across the Western Hemisphere. Focus sessions included nutrition, cooking from school gardens, schoolyard habitats, People’s Garden and community initiatives. Teachers were able to use Pollinator Live! as a resource to meet science standards, to involve students in becoming citizen scientists and to become knowledgeable, engaged and active conservationists. pollinatorlive.pwnet.org

America’s public lands have been part of the fabric of American life since the beginning of the Nation. Until recently, it has been impossible to separate kids from the great outdoors. The latter was part of the heart and soul of every child, as well as every adult. The U.S. Forest wants this legacy – this gift – to continue for current and future generations, not only for the welfare of each and every child on Earth, but for the welfare of Earth itself. Please visit the Forest Service website and become an active participant in one or more of its many great programs.

For more information about U.S. Forest Service Conservation Education Programs, go to fs.usda.gov/conservationeducation.