Those of us who enjoy spending time in nature often believe that outdoor experiences benefit our physical and mental health, support our social lives, and promote a commitment to the protection of nature. Science backs this up: a substantial body of research supports our intuition—and not just for adults. Research shows that time spent recreating and learning outdoors positively and significantly affects children.
Outdoor “place-based” learning fosters positive attitudes and behaviors toward the environment in children as early as preschool. Children who spend regular time learning outdoors develop a love and attachment to their outdoor space, and understand that they are interconnected with the human and non-human communities that surround them. At Seattle Audubon, we see these impacts in all our youth environmental education programming, but in 2020 we’re saying goodbye to one of our long-running favorites, the Finding Urban Nature (FUN) program.
FUN engaged children in regular outdoor learning, often at some of the most racially and ethnically diverse schools with the fewest resources in the Seattle Public School District. FUN provided avenues for community and parent volunteers to share their love of nature with students and allowed students who may struggle in a classroom setting to succeed academically in outdoor learning. Our annual student surveys, too, showed that students who took part in FUN increased their pro-environmental behaviors and attitudes over the course of their third-grade academic year. So much good stuff came out of the FUN program! So why end it?
Our mission at Seattle Audubon is to advocate and organize for cities where people and birds thrive; that includes a commitment to provide positive and frequent opportunities for youth to learn about and spend time in nature. Seattle Audubon’s service area spans from the King/Snohomish County border in Shoreline, south to Des Moines, slices down the center of Lake Washington and stretches to Puget Sound. Most people who live in this region are likely aware of the significant socioeconomic disparities that exist between its most and least affluent neighborhoods, but may not know that, nationwide, sixth grade students in well-resourced school districts are four grade levels ahead of children in the least resourced districts. Outdoor learning opportunities have been shown to mitigate this terrible — and avoidable — current reality.
In recent years, we have invested heavily in the FUN program. We updated and made the curriculum easier for volunteers to lead, created a series of online trainings to reduce the volunteer time commitment, and re-designed the FUN activities to better support teachers and their in-class curriculum.
However, none of these changes can overcome the reality that Seattle itself has changed significantly since the program gained steam in 1990s. As the cost of living in the Seattle area has increased, fewer households have an adult that can volunteer during school hours. FUN’s structure relies on volunteers, supported by Seattle Audubon staff and classroom teachers, to lead small groups of 5–7 children through the curriculum. The shortage of parents as volunteer leaders, a problem exacerbated at schools already facing inequitable resourcing, has made the program increasingly difficult to run.
The challenge in attracting FUN volunteers also limited our ability to reach a significant portion of students in just the Seattle Public School District (SPS). Approximately 86 percent of third graders in SPS in the last decade did not take part in FUN. Remember that description of Seattle Audubon’s service area? It includes several school districts beyond SPS.
If we are to succeed in our mission to advocate and organize for cities where people and birds thrive, children must be a mighty part of that! Over the next three years, Seattle Audubon staff will develop new classroom programs that tie, in an age-appropriate manner, to our conservation initiatives. All activities will support current standards and classroom curriculum. While COVID-restrictions would have put any in-school plans on hold for the fall, we’re taking this time as an opportunity. An opportunity to thoughtfully design what comes next. Our plan is to create programming during the 2020–2021 school year, pilot it with students early in the 2021 school year (COVID- and SPS-dependent), and roll out the final product for 2021-2022.
Seattle Audubon is committed to youth environmental education and we pledge to create new activities that will nurture feelings of joy, comfort, exhilaration, and awe for children while they learn about and care for our region’s incredible nearby nature. Thanks to the legacy of the FUN program, and with your support, we know that we can do it! We are excited about this future and hope that you are, too.