In a world filled with dismal news, 2015 was a banner year for the new nature movement. Here’s a sampling of some of the inspiring trends and stories from the past year.
1. During an era when congressional gridlock is assumed, government took some surprisingly hopeful actions to connect families and communities and nature.
On Dec. 16, the 114th Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka the Every Student Succeeds Act), replacing the No Child Left Behind Act. Unlike NCLB, the new act includes provisions that support learning about the environment, conservation, and field studies. This bipartisan step in the right direction was taken after after years of effort by The No Child Left Inside Coalition, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, environmental education leader Don Baugh, Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, and many others.
Also in 2015, President Obama inaugurated the White House initiative, Every Kid in a Park. As of September 1, 2015, every fourth grader in the U.S., and their families, were able to obtain a free annual pass to all federally managed lands and waters. With an emphasis on inner-city neighborhoods, the initiative, still a work in progress, will work closely with schools, conservation groups, and other organizations. Also, the National Park Service, as part of a larger effort to attract more diverse visitors, launched its Find Your Park campaign, using the Internet to help people learn about parks near and far.
Some of the most positive steps by government, however, happened at the regional and local level, especially among mayors. As you’ll see below.
2. In 2015, the idea that nature can be used for both prevention and therapy gained ground and institutional support.
More health care professionals “prescribed” Vitamin N. In Washington D.C., Dr. Robert. Zarr, continued to encourage physicians to prescribe nature, and he and his colleagues have developed a zip code search engine which rates 350 local parks. Now the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation has teamed up with doctors to get more people outside and exercising; physician “prescriptions” are free passes to any state park.
As more research connected good health outcomes to nature time this year, a group of Massachusetts mental health advocates promoted a Right to Fresh Air bill ensuring that all patients residing in mental health facilities would have the right to reasonable, consistent access to the outdoors. The legislation passed. In Belfast, Ireland, health and environmental experts met to develop policies promoting nature experiences to improve the mental and physical health of citizens. The Irish News reported, “There is no quick-fix… but there is an increasing awareness that the environment or natural world can play a role both at a preventative and curative level.”
In April, an international group of scientists – including a Nobel Prize winner and several Nobel nominees – issued the Helsinki Alert of Biodiversity and Health, affirming the necessity of nearby nature to human health and the need for a new approach to urban planning and policies.
3. The number of nature-smart schools grew – and so did national attention to the impact of natural learning.
Thousands of conservation groups and environmental education professionals and organizations continued their vital work to improve environmental literacy in classrooms and beyond. In addition, more school walls became permeable. For years, nature-smart schools have been popular in Germany and Scandinavian countries, but now they’re gaining traction around the world.
On December 28, The New York Times reported that The Natural Start Alliance, “founded in 2013 in response to demand from a growing number of nature preschool providers,” counts 92 schools that “put nature at the heart of their programs, and where children spend a significant portion of each day outside….That’s up from 20 schools in 2008.” This year, the Texas Workforce Commission announced new financial incentives and support for childcare centers with outdoor activities. In Indiana, New Jersey and West Virginia, the American Water Charitable Foundation, Building Better Communities announced a major grant to fund nature-based play.
Also in 2015, C&NN announced its Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities Project. The initiative will work to support leaders in the Green Schoolyard movement to transform our national school grounds into nature-rich environments for children and families, and create a resource hub that offers research, information and training.
Meanwhile, in South Australia, the state government decided to jumpstart their own nature preschool movement. A $6 million program will encourage the establishment of nature preschools across the state, and establish 20 new outdoor play areas. Public-private Nature Play campaigns continue to grow in four of Australia’s seven states.
In China,a 2015 study attributed an impressive growth spurt of the nature education movement to changing attitudes among parents; more business involvement; and the emergence of environmentalism’s “social participation model” – the belief that the future of conservation will be assured only if future generations learn to love nature through direct experience.
4. Biophilic design moved further into the mainstream of urban thinking,
The biopilia hypothesis holds that human beings are genetically wired to have an affiliation with the rest of nature, and so it’s no surprise why people tend to be more productive and healthier in houses, schools and office buildings infused with natural elements. In Singapore the Centre of Liveable Communities and the National Parks Board began drafting guidelines to help agencies develop and refine facilities to help better connect people to nature, integrating the principles of biophilic design.
Architect Mohammed Lawal, a member of C&NN’s board of directors, used aspects biophilic design to help create a new home for Minnesota’s Washburn Center for Children, a large facility serving children with social, emotional and behavioral challenges. Lawal also used biophilic principles in the redevelopment of Sun Ray Library in 2014, in a lower-income St. Paul neighborhood. And in 2015, with support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Wells Fargo, C&NN launched its Natural Library initiative at Sun Ray, as part of an effort to encourage libraries to connect families to nature through the design of facilities and programs. We hope that libraries across the country will become hubs of bioregional awareness.
5. As many of us hoped it would, 2015 turned out to be the year of the nature-rich city.
In partnership with the National League of Cities, C&NN launched a new initiative, Cities Connecting Children to Nature, an ambitious project that will offer training and technical assistance for creating nature-rich cities to municipal leaders across the U.S., with an emphasis on improving nature access for low-income communities. This year, Ralph Becker and Chris Coleman, the mayors of Salt Lake City, Utah, and St. Paul, Minnesota, kicked off the initiative by hosting leadership training for city staff members from around the country.
In 2015, some cities were well on their way to becoming national models. In Salt Lake City, Mayor Becker developed Salt Lake City Explore, which challenges local youths and their parents to spend at least 30 minutes a day outdoors for a 30-day period. It’s part of a national campaign led by U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to connect children with nature and inspire a new generation of outdoor stewards. Philadelphia pursued the goal of creating suitable green spaces within a 10-minute walk of every home in the city. Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter recently announced the expansion of the city’s Green2015 partnership, with the Trust for Public Land, to develop more green schoolyards, engaging elementary school students as design partners – and creating a multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign.
A coming challenge will be to reimagine the whole city, not only the parks and school grounds, as a coming zoopolis. In the U.K., a campaign gained steam to capitalize on existing natural areas and restore and create new nearby nature, and transform the entire city of London into the world’s first National Park City.
6. Corporate, government, philanthropic and academic support for the new nature movement increased, in some surprising ways.
The North Face contributed $500,000 to 47 projects, including Latino Outdoors, that connect people to personal and societal change through nature. DaVita HealthCare Partners Inc. helped Great Outdoors Colorado hold its first-ever Outdoor Summit, announcing $35 million in grants for communities that connect kids to nature. Disney expanded its support of family nature clubs. Meanwhile, REI told us all to take a hike. REI closed its stores nationwide on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, and encouraged its employees and customers head outdoors on that day. More than 150 other companies, nonprofit organizations and agencies joined REI’s #OptOutside campaign. (The REI Foundation has been supportive of C&NN’s efforts for years.)
In addition to moral suasion, the new nature movement depends on scientific research to make the case. In 2015, we saw an upsurge in new studies about the importance of nature experience to human development, and that surge is gaining speed. We not only need more research, we need ways to get these findings into the right hands, and to make them more available to the public. This year, in partnership with the University of Minnesota, the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE) and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Children & Nature Network announced the formation of the Science of Nature-Based Learning Collaborative Research Network, with funding from a three-year National Science Foundation grant.
Expanding C&NN’s current collection of research and resources for education, health and movement-building into a comprehensive and powerful engine for change will be essential if the new nature movement is to continue to grow and thrive.
7. 2015 produced a wealth of new, nature-smart leaders.
Families are taking nature into their own hands, with a little help from some major organizations. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) announced the recipients of 44 Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium grants. Supported by the Disney Conservation Fund, the program is a partnership with the Children & Nature Network, building on their successful Family Nature Club initiative – an effort to encourage families to band together to get outside. In partnership with C&NN, the Canadian Wildlife Federation is building a remarkable Wild Family Nature Clubs campaign.
All of these trends and leaders were on full display in 2015 at several conferences. The Brandwein Institute, in partnership with the National Environmental Education Foundation, encouraged a new generation of leadership at a North American at a summit held in November at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in West Virginia. In April, in partnership with Austin Families in Nature. the first C&NN national conference fully open to the public quadrupled the attendance of past C&NN gatherings. (Here’s information on how to enroll in the next C&NN Conference, to be held May 24th – 27th, in St. Paul.) And in June, members of C&NN’s Natural Leaders network of young leaders, ages 18 to 30, gathered at NCTC, where they explored old and new ways to connect their home communities to the natural world.
Like others who were there, I came away inspired by both the C&NN Conference and the Natural Leaders training. As I wrote in July, when I arrived at NCTC, “the fields were alive with fireflies and the evening sky was lit by lightening. The scene was appropriate, for the light that these young people will spread around the world will be electric, luminescent and authentic.”
In a world of grief, prejudice, anger and violence, connecting people to nature brings people together. It’s a happy cause.
_____________________Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. His newest book, VITAMIN N, will be published in April. It offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. Follow Rich on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter