Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Environmental education: A new necessity for healthy kids?

As a new generation of American children face more adult stresses than ever before – pressure to achieve adequate test scores, rising rates of childhood obesity and its accompanying diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and emotional complications - scientists have found an unexpectedly simple cure. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine reports this month that the silver bullet for children’s physical and emotional health is no medicine at all: rather, it’s access to natural green space.

In a recent study of 3800 children ages 3 to 18, mostly poor and African-American, scientists documented a dramatic health disparity in children living in urban neighborhoods with varying amounts of green space. Children with access to more wild areas – from vacant lots to city parks - gained weight more slowly than their less green counterparts, and were less likely to be obese as adults. They also displayed higher cognitive functioning and fewer symptoms of ADHD. Adult residents of greener neighborhoods, meanwhile, tend to display lower stress, lower weight, and better health.

These results come as no surprise to some policy makers.

In an attempt to patch over educational gaps left by No Child Left Behind, the groundbreaking No Child Left Inside Act passed the House in September. No Child Left Behind demands that children meet grade level standards in reading, math, and science. In a push to prepare students adequately on these subjects, this legislation has sidelined topics deemed more superfluous, including environmental education. It’s not surprising, then, that in a recent study, two thirds of American adults failed a basic environmental quiz and 88% failed a basic energy quiz. “Forty-five million Americans think the ocean is a source of fresh water and 130 million believe that hydropower is America's top energy source,” the study findings report.

No Child Left Inside would provide $500 million over the next five years to fund environmental education in K-12 classrooms. As the environmental education movement gathers steam, more and more educators acknowledge the necessity of training the newest generations to be wise stewards of our dwindling natural resources. As today’s children reach adulthood, they will have to make unprecedented decisions about our energy resources and the health of an overtaxed planet.

Biologists use the term mutualism to describe a relationship between two species that benefits both parties. For example, a hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower both feeds itself and pollinates the plant. Perhaps humans and the earth are mutualistic as well. By preserving the health of our green spaces , we are also protecting the health of our children.

by Sadie Kneidel

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