Taking learning outdoors leads to stronger, healthier communities

Imagine a world where our more than 300,000 students received a world-class pre-K to 12 education in New Mexico and were prepared to enter the workforce with curiosity and a passion for lifelong learning along with critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In response to Vicki Pozzebon’s My View (“Knocking down the barriers to opportunity,” Sept. 2), I would like to offer a path to ensure that our students are receiving exceptional learning opportunities while investing in teachers’ quality of life — environmental education. This investment in environmental education will increase career readiness and strengthen New Mexico’s economy while valuing and protecting our rich cultural and natural histories.

Currently, there are no systems or requirements in place for New Mexico’s 300,000-plus students to learn outdoors. With roughly half of our state comprised of public lands, there are endless opportunities for New Mexicans to explore the beautiful landscapes and rich cultures of our state. New Mexico is well positioned to transform our current education system to include early childhood education opportunities for every child, take advantage of our wonderful climate and bring learning outdoors into schoolyards year-round, and provide teachers with professional development to support student-centered instruction along with ensuring they are supported in fulfilling, long careers in education.

Through community dialogues, we at the Environmental Education Association of New Mexico, have been seeking perspectives, experiences, wisdom, and dreams to transform our education system. This includes opportunities for multidisciplinary education which is responsive to the backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences of students. We believe every New Mexican should have access to first-rate, engaging, and meaningful environmental education opportunities starting with early childhood education.

According to a 2018 study released from Stanford University where over 2,000 publications were reviewed and 119 articles were analyzed for K-12 student outcomes connected to environmental education over a 20-year period (1994-2013), researchers discovered the following evidence of the benefits of environmental education:

Increased knowledge in multiple disciplines which translates into a well-rounded and balanced workforce with problem-solving skills.

Increased socioemotional skills which leads to workers who work better cooperatively, are more motivated, have better self esteem to take on new tasks and responsibilities, and demonstrate increased leadership skills.

More academic skills including 21st-century skills which leads to individuals with better communication, problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and ability to analyze which all contribute to stronger, more profitable work places.

More motivation to learn and be curious which is central to a workforce that is committed to lifelong learning and growth.

Increased civic engagement and commitment to environmentally friendly behavior, both of which lead to stronger, healthier communities.

Reflecting on the recent ruling of Yazzie v. State of New Mexico and Martinez v. State of New Mexico, why don’t we look inwards in investing in the valuable assets of our state, mainly in terms of our cultures and natural areas to transform our education system? Why not embed our diverse cultures, languages, and traditional ecological ways of knowing into learning? Isn’t it time that we connect our students with their schoolyards and public lands right in our backyards?

To learn more about the Environmental Education Association of New Mexico’s strategic systems thinking process and to share your ideas, please visit eeanm.org/strategic-systems-thinking-in-community.

Eileen Everett is executive director of the Environmental Education Association of New Mexico and deeply values education designed for all students and a more equitable and inclusive world.

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