No child left inside: Obama, Congress trying to open doors

President Obama's budget proposes putting money into educating kids about the outdoors. And Congress is trying to get children to put down the electronic devices and go enjoy nature. But kids are now plugged in more than seven hours daily.
Crosscut archive image.

A forest stream

President Obama's budget proposes putting money into educating kids about the outdoors. And Congress is trying to get children to put down the electronic devices and go enjoy nature. But kids are now plugged in more than seven hours daily.

Calling it a "historic moment" and a "terrific first step," conservationists applauded President Obama's budget request that included, for the first time, money for "environmental literacy" for the U.S. Department of Education.

Great news, but keep in mind that it's only the first step.

Advancing the environmental literacy of our students is key to addressing today's increasingly complex environmental and related economic, social, natural resource, and energy issues. Don Baugh, director of the No Child Left Inside Coalition, said in a press release. "It will not only better prepare students for college and the 21st Century workforce, but help to combat childhood obesity and related health problems by getting kids outside to learn about the natural world. ... I commend the President and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for recognizing the critical role that environmental education plays in preparing our students for the green economy."

"The Department of Education took a historic step for the future economy by including environmental literacy," added Kevin Coyle, Vice President for Education and Training at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), a founding member of the NCLI Coalition.

The press release also included praise of the budget request from Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Congressman John Sabanes (D-MD), authors of the No Child Left Inside Act currently being deliberated in the both the Senate and House.

Isn't it refreshing, for a change, to be heading in the right direction? President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have made innovation and student achievement a major goal of the administration, and what they call "environmental literacy" is part of it.

How much money actually goes to environmental literacy is an elusive number, but it comes out of a proposed budget request of $1 billion for a program designed to improve instruction to support college- and career-readiness standards.

The NCLI Coalition, the nation's leading voice for environmental education, includes 1,500 nonprofit groups and agencies and represents 50 million individuals, but even with that political punch, it still faces an uphill battle to beat nature deficit disorder. The fight continues on these two frontlines:

Surgeon General Priorities. The NCLI Coalition and the NWF are pushing hard to convince our new Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, "to promote the health benefits of children who engage in regular unstructured outdoor play in their backyards, at local parks, or any green space that offers the opportunity to connect with nature."

This shouldn't be a big stretch for Dr. Benjamin. First Lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have already announced plans for "a healthier America" through regular physical activity and better nutrition. The NCLI Coalition and NWF simply want that concept expanded to include "time unplugged" and making independent play outdoors and connecting with nature an integral part of that new vision.

"The medical, education, and environmental communities ask the Surgeon General to recommend that all American children and their families take time everyday to 'be out there' and interact with the natural world," NWF spokesperson Rebecca Garland, said while supporting the expanded vision.

Garland is executive director of NWF program called Be Out There, a national campaign "to help American families raise happier, healthier children with a life-long love of nature."

No Child Left Inside Act. On Earth Day 2009, Senator Reed and Representative Sarbanes, along with 101 co-sponsors, introduced the No Child Left Inside Act. The bill authorizes new funding ($500 million over five years) for states to provide higher-quality, environmental education and to support outdoor learning activities. This critical legislation has gotten blown off the radar screen by Wall Street bailout, economic stimulus, health care, and jobs legislation, but now, hopefully, Congress can get back to it. Passing it on Earth Day 2010 would be a grand idea.

Just in case you think the above isn't a high priority compared to other things you'd like to see the Obama Administration and Congress doing, consider this: A new study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that daily electronic media use by children "is up dramatically" and today's children have less contact with nature than any generation in human history. The average American child, in fact, now spends 7 hours and 38 minutes per day (53 hours per week) "plugged in."

In other words, and not meaning to rain on the good news in Obama's budget, we're still losing this all-important battle even faster than we imagined.

Hopefully, Congress and the administration can heed this shocking news and act quickly to pass the NCLI Act and make fighting nature deficit disorder a high priority for the surgeon general so our next generation can receive a more robust education about connecting with our natural world.

This article is reprinted, with permission, from


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors