Thursday, August 2, 2012

Art Education and the No Child Left Inside Act

Once a week I drive my children to afternoon lessons -- Japanese for my daughter, violin for my son. For several months our route took us past a construction site and each week we watched as first the site was cleared and leveled, then the foundation was laid, and finally the walls were constructed. As the walls neared completion a row of narrow horizontal windows were added. Observing that, while these windows might allow sunlight in they certainly wouldn't permit a view out, one of my children asked, "Is this new building going to be a prison?" To which I smiled sadly and replied, "No Sweetheart, that's an elementary school."

In 2005 Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. In the book Mr. Louv noted that as our society was becoming more digital two disturbing things were happening to our children: they were becoming less connected to nature in their daily lives, and they were becoming alarmingly out of shape.

Heeding the alarm, members of both houses of Congress introduced the No Child Left Inside Act in 2008 to encourage schools to integrate environmental education into the curriculum and, for at least part of the school day, to get our kids out of the classroom and into nature. (The bill didn't pass but the seed had been planted within the educational community.)

That same year I helped organize a team of interested educators at the school where I was teaching: science, English, history, math, and visual arts teachers who were interested in investigating the potential of nature journaling. We were intrigued by the idea of taking our students out into nature (just the mention of "going to the river" was enough to solicit whoops and hollers -- student motivation? check!) and then use their common journal as a tool for scientific observation and enquiry, research into the natural and cultural history of the region, sketching from nature, and creative writing (even poetry!)

Fort Worth Botanical Gardens

In 2009 I began traveling the country and teaching my own nature-based sketching and journaling workshops at nature centers, school districts, and state and national parks -- for children and their parents, and professional development workshops for enlightened faculty who recognized the value of nature as an untapped educational resource.

Flint Hill School, Oakton, VA

Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Conservation Education Center, Columbus, AR

North Cascades National Park, Stehekin, WA

Congress has yet to pass the No Child Left Inside Act, but that may be a moot point. Across America, states and communities are taking the initiative and creating their own NCLI coalitions... and kids are once again enjoying experiential learning in the great outdoors!

Post Script: This week's post was written from my own experience as an art educator in the United States. I would love to hear how art educators in other countries are using journals in (and out of) their classrooms too. Cheers!


  1. Wonderful article!! Although it's only two children, I have my granddaughters doing the same thing when they come over. Rather than letting them sit inside in front of TV or video games, I encourage them to sit outside and draw what they come across. They love my journals and love the fact grandma has made it possible for them to follow suit. I only hope the trend continues where others like yourself continue encouraging children to tap into their creative sides and do other things outdoors (especially experiencing nature) rather than all the time inside.

    Beautiful journal entries!!

  2. Hi Susan. Glad you enjoyed the article. If your granddaughters enjoy your journals you might consider gifting them their very own journals as a special encouragement. I can recommend Bare Books from Treetop Publishing ( They are hardbound and have a really nice white paper that takes well to pencil, pen & ink, and light washes. With just 28 pages they won't overwhelm budding artists, and at $1.75 ea. they won't strain anyone's budget either.

  3. Hi Earnest...........thank you so much for that suggestion. I will definitely look into those books! :-)

  4. Just brilliant; I loved reading this and know exactly what you mean (as a past teacher myself, passionate about passing my love of nature and landscape - and a whole lot of other things - onto my 8-9 year old charges). In fact, I wrote a paragraph today in a gardening blog I write for a UK company which encouraged parents to help their children start a nature/gardening journal during the school holidays. Long may teachers, parents and grandparents continue to pass on this joy of journaling and sketching.

  5. Enjoying your new blog! This post was great and something all educators and parents should read. When I taught public school kindergarten in the 1980's, I did not know about nature journaling then...but thankfully my classroom had an outside door and we always planted a fairly large garden as soon as possible each spring. The kids did all of the prep, planting, weeding and watering. The last week of school, we always made a big pot of vegetable soup, salad, and other veggie dishes using the produce from our garden. It was a great learning tool for the kids...25 years later, I still run into former students that recall this experience!

    1. Love and respect for nature, the miracle of watching life grow, the pleasure of honest toil, pride in a job well done, self-confidence, the rewards of delayed gratification, and healthy eating. Sounds like you were teaching some pretty amazing life lessons Debo -- lessons that your students found memorable too. :-D

  6. Earnest,
    This rings so many bells for me! Years ago, as a sophpmore in university, I was introduced to the wonder and potential of the field journal as a learning tool and a form of expressing one's curiosity and creativity. The capacity of the field journal as a lens, excuse, mechanism, whatever you want to call it, to engage in one's social and envrpironmental surroundings is potent, significant!

    After that eye-opening year of studies recorded in my first field journals, I began consulting and teaching for environmental education organizations interested in incorporating field journaling into their programs. I have since taught children, teenagers, univ. students, parents, teachers, professors, etc...both about the joys of journaling AND basic field sketching and observation skills. One thing I have found, for adults at least, is that an introduction to basic drawing techniques makes an ENORMOUS difference in what people get out of the process.

    I love the intersection of science, art and personal curiosity that is enabled (and demanded) by field journaling. I have found my students of all ages are fascinated, hooked, by the realization that they can focus on learning about what THEY find compelling. there is a very real empowerment gained from making choices about what to record, how, and allowing freedom to ask questions in a way that does not criticize the learner for not already having the answer. I also found, for myself certainly, that my memory of topocs, principles, and experiences is deeper, more vivid, and more accessible when I have captured it in visual and written formats. The physical reconstruction, the heightened concentration, and the creativity required all add up to a visceral, highly visual record of life around me.

    Considering that field journaling (and basic drawing skills) used to be a fundamental part of science education - pre-cameras, etc. - I think it is a practice which offers us rich opportunity to re-connect with the world around (and within) us.

    Thank you for sharing this blog post about your experiences!

  7. Apologies for the typos above. I am using a tablet, and find the keyboards troublesome.

  8. Have you ever been to this site? It is a movement in the UK focusing on just this topic- the youtube channel is marvellous, and the different sketchbooks are a marvel.