Topeka Citing statistics that children aren't exposed to the outdoors as much as in past generations, a nonprofit environmental education group is asking the Kansas State Board of Education to endorse a plan that would increase the amount of time students spend outside learning science, math and language arts.
"Our children are certainly not on the brink of having too much outdoor activity," Charlie Black, of the Kansas Wildscape Foundation, recently told state board members. "Our children are being raised by high definition screens and cell phones."
The Kansas Wildscape Foundation is one of more than a dozen organizations promoting the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education's Kansans for Children in Nature, an initiative created through an executive order in 2009 to address the growing disconnect of children with nature.
Susan Fowler-Hentzler, a Seaman Unified School District 345 board of education member and director of the Shawnee County North Community Center, supports the three-year plan that increases students' environmental knowledge while teaching them science, math and reading concepts — many of which are tied to state assessment indicators.
"Students tend to learn more with hands-on experiences, and many students prefer that outdoor setting when given the opportunity," she said. "Those experiences spark interest and imagination. Nature and youth are just a great combination."
Laura Downey, KACEE executive director, said a Kaiser Family Foundation study showed that children are spending increasing numbers of hours of their free time in front of "something electronic."
"This is leading to some problems," she said. "We know that when our children spend time outdoors that it helps with cognition and focus."
Downey said some of the plan is based on concepts in a book, "Last Child in the Woods," by Richard Louv, who coined the phrase "Nature Deficit Disorder."
"It's not an official diagnosis," Downey said. "But it makes a compelling case to have our children spend more time outdoors."
Janet Waugh, a state board of education member from Kansas City, Kan., served on the Kansans for Children in Nature planning committee and praised the group's work.
"They have worked so terribly hard to put this document together," she said. "I think it's fantastic. I call it 'No Child Left Inside'. Kansas is truly blessed to have these great talented people here in this state. They've worked diligently to accomplish their goal of not implementing something new for teachers."
Downey said while many educators may see KACEE's plan — expected to be voted on by state board members in April — as something that may be added to their growing list of instructional requirements, the alliance of organizations that crafted the plan has worked hard to tie existing academic standards into the initiative.
"I recognize the challenges and that there's pressure on teachers," she said. "The more we can demonstrate to teachers that there are ways to accomplish these goals, the better. We know learning connects to kids when it's meaningful to them."
Walt Chappell, a state board member, said as a farmer and a former biology teacher, he supports the plan but is concerned more effort is needed to integrate it into the existing curriculum.
Diane DeBacker, Kansas education commissioner, said many schools across the state are already using outdoor classrooms to teach students real-life science and other subjects.