Politicians promote outdoor learning

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer


Published April 23, 2008

A group of congressmen got a chance to escape Capitol Hill for fresh air and scenic views yesterday, when they held a field hearing on a bill that would require more outdoor education in schools.

U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes, who represents parts of Anne Arundel County, convinced a handful of his colleagues to join him at the Patuxent Research Refuge on Earth Day to learn about environmental education first-hand.

 Joined by Gov. Martin O'Malley, they wandered around the refuge, which sprawls across nearly 13,000 acres in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties near Laurel. The politicians watched as students dragged seine nets through a lake and planted native plants. Then they held a news conference and hearing on a patio overlooking Lake Redington.

Mr. Sarbanes was hoping to get more support for his No Child Left Inside bill, a play on the No Child Left Behind program. The bill would require all states to set "environmental literacy" goals for students, and it would funnel money to school systems to support outdoor programs.

"Environmental education is critical because the environment is a fabulous tool to get kids engaged in learning," said Mr. Sarbanes, D-Baltimore County.

Supporters of the bill say outdoor and environmental education has multiple benefits for kids: it teaches them real-world environmental lessons, they get fresh air and physical activity and they can practice math, science and other disciplines.
Maryland officials used the hearing as a chance to tout their initiatives on environmental education.

Mr. O'Malley announced he signed an executive order establishing the Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature. The partnership is a coalition of the government, nonprofit groups and others to promote outdoor learning experiences for children. The group also will create an environmental literacy plan for Maryland students.

The partnership will work largely within existing financial resources. For example, the state parks will work to make sure their youth programs tie-in with school curricula.

"The goal is to create a new generation that … is in touch with nature," Mr. O'Malley said.

Maryland officials said the move makes the state perhaps the first in the nation to put a high priority on environmental education.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said public schools have required environmental education for all kids since 1990.

Under the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, which lays out plans for improving the health of the bay, all school systems in the bay region agreed to make sure each child had at least one "meaningful watershed experience" before graduation. Ms. Grasmick said Maryland has upped that goal to one experience each year.

"I think it's time to take environmental education to a whole new level," she said.
Students from Hebron-Harman Elementary in Hanover wouldn't mind that one bit. They went to the refuge yesterday to do a planting and explain how they raise terrapins and eels in their classrooms. Today they'll be working in their school's garden.

"It's better being outside because we get to learn about nature," said Kamaria Avery, a fourth-grader.

Added fifth-grader Tristan Easton: "When we're outside, it's fun and you can learn more because you can see the real thing."