Essay: Embracing the great outdoors is a vital step in developing Sacramento’s next generation

Photograph Prajna Amey

By Trent Murphy

In today’s fast-paced digital age, where screens dominate the landscape of childhood experiences, it’s easy to overlook the profound impact that nature can have on a child’s development. The call of the wild, however, is not just a poetic phrase; it’s a fundamental need, especially in the formative years of elementary education.

It may also very well be the puzzle piece that is missing from science curriculum across the state. Only 30% of California’s 4th graders scored proficiently in 2022, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, putting California near the bottom in the nation. Outdoor education and environmental literacy should not be viewed as merely extras; they are essential components of a holistic education that improves scientific understanding and nurtures emotional, social, and mental development.

Imagine the joy in a child’s eyes when they first witness a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis or feel the raindrops on their skin during a sudden shower. These moments are not just fleeting pleasures; they are essential building blocks of emotional resilience. Nature provides a safe space for children to explore, make discoveries, and learn from their successes and failures. It fosters a sense of wonder and connection, grounding our children emotionally and offering solace in times of stress. Outdoor experiences teach the next generation to respect all living things, instilling empathy and compassion.

The outdoors is a natural playground for social interactions and learning opportunities. Engaging in group activities like nature hikes, team-building games, or communal gardening nurtures vital social skills. Children learn cooperation, communication, and problem-solving in an unstructured, yet supportive, environment. They are able to share discoveries and develop a profound sense of camaraderie. These interactions are the building blocks of future friendships, teaching children how to collaborate and thrive in diverse social settings. In addition to the observable social benefits, studies have shown that outdoor education enhances cognitive abilities, improves concentration, and boosts problem-solving skills. Observing the natural world also nurtures a deep appreciation for the environment, creating future stewards of our planet.

In the heart of the movement to bring outdoor experiences to the next generation stands Sacramento Splash, which seeks to be a force transforming the landscape of environmental education. Through six different immersive programs, Splash introduces nearly 18,000 children per year in the greater Sacramento area to the wonders of nature in ways that leave lasting imprints on their hearts and minds. They are not merely an organization abounding with eager environmentalists and educators; they are architects of curiosity, nurturing a profound connection between young minds and the natural world. Splash doesn’t just bring children outdoors; they guide them through ecosystems, unveil the secrets of wildlife, and instill a deep respect for the environment.

A grand vision of meaningful experiences in the outdoors being available for every child in California is not just a fleeting dream; it’s the mission of CalSOL (California Statewide Outdoor Learning). CalSOL passionately advocates for equal access to quality outdoor education for all 6 million public school students in California. Their vision is simple yet profound: a California where ALL students have access to the state’s unique natural treasures through outdoor learning as part of their educational experience, making them happier, healthier, and better prepared to succeed.

Currently, receiving the benefits of outdoor education is a bit like winning the lottery. If you live in an area that has prioritized these programs, you may be lucky, but rarely will all children receive equal access to outdoor education. Historically disadvantaged and low socio-economic groups often face greater barriers when it comes to accessing environmental education. Limited resources, lack of exposure, and reduced funding in underprivileged communities result in fewer outdoor learning experiences for these children. This educational disparity widens the gap between those who have the privilege of exploring nature’s wonders and those who are confined to concrete jungles. The consequence is not merely a lack of exposure to the great outdoors; it’s an absence of the profound lessons nature imparts – lessons of resilience, empathy, and problem-solving that are vital for personal and academic growth.

By denying these children access to environmental education opportunities, we perpetuate a cycle of educational inequity. CalSOL’s mission becomes not just a quest for equal access, but a crusade for justice, aiming to level the educational playing field and empower every child, regardless of their background, to connect with nature, enriching their lives and ensuring a fairer, more equitable future for all.

While Splash primarily serves Sacramento County children, they are also a part of the CalSOL collaborative effort, pioneering the charge to ensure that no child is left behind and disconnected from the natural wonders that surround us. Because of Splash’s efforts, they are creating pathways for every child to explore, learn, and thrive in the great outdoors. Their mission aligns seamlessly with CalSOL’s vision, embodying the spirit of equal access and empowering every child to embrace the joys of nature. Together, under CalSOL, organizations like Sacramento Splash are not merely just small pockets of passionate environmentalists and educators; they are the framework for sowing the seeds of a brighter, greener future for all, one child at a time.

By supporting Sacramento Splash and CalSOL’s mission, we are not just enhancing education; we are investing in the future of our children and our planet. We are nurturing a generation of environmentally conscious, emotionally resilient, and socially adept individuals who will shape a more compassionate, sustainable world. Together, let’s ensure that the great outdoors becomes an integral part of every child’s educational journey, enriching their lives and empowering them to thrive in an ever-changing future.

Add your name to the list of supporters if you believe in Cal-SOL’s mission, so that you can remain informed about ways to further its cause. CalSOL is a collaborative, grassroots, effort to move the needle towards bridging the inequality gap and increasing funding for organizations that connect young people to the outdoors.

To learn more about how you can support Sacramento Splash you can visit their website and sign up for the once monthly newsletter to remain up to date on all the great work Splash is doing.

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