The Important Impact Environmental Literacy Has on Kids—and How Parents Can Support It

Michele Whiteaker is a mom of two teens who believes in the power of parents and caregivers to give the children in their lives the gift of nature. She is widely quoted for coining the term “hummingbird parent” to explain a parenting strategy that allows kids some autonomy outdoors. She’s spent the past decade building her free online community resource called FunOrangeCountyParks.com with more than 300 parks to empower local Orange County families to get outdoors. Michele is also a National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG), which helps her tell stories and develop social media strategies for engaging online audiences.

In this Q&A, Michele shares her experiences with environmental literacy in schools, and the ways she says parents across California can help encourage the important outcomes this type of learning provides.

How did you first get involved with environmental literacy?

I first learned about the environmental literacy work being done in our state when I was an attendee of the Children and Nature Network Grassroots Gathering in San Diego. It was 2013 and the director of the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER), Jerry Lieberman, was a keynote speaker. His message resonated with me because the public school my children attended already embraced an ecoliteracy curriculum and it was integrated throughout every class and grade with full support of the K-8 school’s administration. At the time, I had no idea this was an initiative being pursued at the state level for all California students.

What are the greatest impacts you’ve seen environmental literacy programs have on students?

There are children in our Southern California community who have never seen the Pacific Ocean and who haven’t had the chance to see the plants that produce the food we eat growing. In my five years as a parent volunteer/garden coordinator at the school working closely with a dedicated Master Gardener, I witnessed deep student connections to their local surroundings, which created so many learning opportunities.

These opportunities make a lasting impression on students of all ages. I’ve seen seventh- grade girls get very invested in their potato harvest (“You mean, they grow underground? Our hands will get dirty! Nobody gets to dig them out but us since we planted them.”). I’ve seen first graders holding out their hands for seeds to plant and responsibly use the hose to water those seeds, which eventually they enjoy as a feast. I’ve seen students bring home berries they’ve grown for breakfast, and enjoy the quiet solace of sitting in the shade of a grapevine-laden trellis. The mental health aspects of environmental literacy cannot be overstated.

Students get so empowered when they understand how humans depend upon and impact natural systems. For instance, students can see their lunch waste transformed into gardening gold through the hands-on hard work of composting. They have a problem—too much waste. They figure out that sustainable solutions require research, teamwork, trial & error, and design thinking, among other strategies. Tackling a local problem like reducing waste or capturing rainwater helps them gain skills to think and act in a larger field once they’ve graduated from campus life.

How does environmental literacy education impact the next generation of students?

Outdoor classrooms may seem frivolous and fun to the uninitiated parent, but just like play is the work of childhood these experiences increase student engagement to give the kids “a-ha!” moments when they can put together how humans and nature interact and how that relates to their textbook reading or homework assignments.

The next generation of students is so aware of the human impact on the planet. They crave tools to figure things out and are wise beyond their years. Teachers, parents and environmental literacy instructors have an exciting role to play by encouraging students’ natural curiosity and drive to make the world a better place.

Environmental literacy builds bridges so students can find new pathways on their own by understanding the systems and key players at work in their own local community.

Right now, a self-organized group of students is working over summer at our local high school to move the school toward a green campus. They are starting with administrative support for a school garden, which requires coordination between stakeholders, plus being a spokesperson for nature and the environment. The group of people the students have assembled for this singular project spans from church volunteers, to teachers, to district facility maintenance staff, to students from various STEM-related clubs on campus. The students of today think BIG.

How has environmental literacy impacted you as a parent?

I believe one person can make a difference, especially in a school community. I have used my voice to support nonformal education providers who have offered school programs, field trips and summer camps that are in line with outdoor fun and learning. I put in countless volunteer hours to make sure students had an outdoor classroom that was ready for their lessons and discoveries. I made budget requests that were reasonable and kept the gardens sustainable—and I made sure I supported other volunteers. The beauty of volunteering is that you learn right alongside the students.

I am also lucky to have friends and mentors who do this work and help educate me on the value of it for the students. It’s been a pleasure to see advances in the official position of Department of Education and the adoption of environmental literacy into the Education Code. I so appreciate the efforts of so many small nonprofits, education providers, and especially the many passionate individuals that it takes to move us toward environmental literacy for all.

Why should other parents care about this type of education and its success?

Parents should care about environmental literacy because it’s part of our state education standards. I would encourage every parent of a K–12 student to become familiar with what that means. I feel like so often these days, the first response to something we don’t understand is to complain about it. Why not skip that step by trying to understand it first? Although it includes some terminology that sounds like educational jargon and it’s definitely acronym-heavy, it’s worth taking a little time to explore the California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy and the perspectives shared on this website. This program will find the most success when it’s supported and understood by parents at home.

How can other parents get involved?

Parents can become familiar with the history of this program and point it out to their PTA for funding. In my experience, parent or booster organizations tend to fund what is brought to them by teachers or the school principal (typically, Chromebooks or other technological needs are at the top of the list). Instead of pouring more money into screens, parents can propose environmental literacy projects that fit their schools and students, and petition their parent organization for budgets to be spent on meaningful experiences that can happen right on campus. In my experience, there are usually one or two teachers or volunteers who “get it” when it comes to environmental literacy. Seek them out. They will be the ones running a school garden or recycling program. Team up to be their spokesperson at parent meetings.

Here are a few other ways parents can support environmental literacy:

  • Use your work experience and expertise to help out on school projects (school gardens, leading a nature hike near school, sharing career knowledge)
  • Ask your child’s teacher if they’d like you to add “Environmental Literacy Parent” to the Back to School Night parent volunteer list—and fill in your name to support the teacher
  • Attend parent–teacher organization meetings and make sure there is a parent voice for outdoor learning
  • Look up all the nonformal education providers in your community that offer environmental literacy programs and offer them to the volunteer field trip coordinator at your school
  • If there are campus-wide environmental issues that impact students, figure out a way to include students to be part of finding the solution
  • Even if your student is getting close to the end of their K–12 career, consider what you can do as legacy work for future generations of students

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