Community Agriculture Alliance: Putting down the smartphone and exploring the great outdoors

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— At the apex of a flourishing era when technology is king, the youths in our country are growing up in a very different world than past generations. With much of their daily lives spent in front of a screen or on a smartphone or other device, you might ask yourself, “Does being outside even matter to them anymore?” I am one of those people, a product of the current generation, and I can say it does matter.

Community Agriculture Alliance

This weekly column about agriculture issues is written by area farmers, ranchers and policymakers. It publishes on Fridays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

Largely because of this swing toward “screen time,” returning to an understanding of nature and the environment now is one of the most important parts of education. With the recent passage of environmental education plans in more than half of our nation’s states, we are moving toward a high school graduation requirement for environmental literacy.

Yampatika and our local elementary schools are working together to prepare for this philosophical and practical shift in education.

Although my generation perhaps is best known for an increasingly indoor, technology-oriented lifestyle, the children of Routt County take a different, more enthusiastic approach to nature and the outdoors.

While working as a naturalist for Yampatika, I have had the opportunity to visit many of our local schools and interact with children in a meaningful way when it comes to the natural world. Call it a product of the amazing place in which they grow up, but these kids are really excited when it comes to the outdoors.

With many area schools already using the outdoor classroom for learning, Yampatika’s Environmental Literacy Program simply was a logical next step. Now in its fourth year, the program has expanded to reach all three school districts in Routt County and to work with more than 40 classrooms to inspire environmental stewardship and build a solid foundation for environmental education.

Through independent evaluation, we have learned incorporating the outdoor classroom into the school experience improves academic achievement. Our model is recognized regionally and statewide for academic excellence and includes essential teacher aids such as Discovery Boxes, self-contained teaching units that foster heightened environmental education.

The Environmental Literacy Program will be formally recognized by the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education in 2014 and will receive in March the 2013 Environmental Education Award for Excellence in the Pre K-Elementary Education category.

For all generations present and forthcoming, connecting to our environment is key to understanding our future. Programs such as Yampatika’s will ensure a proper foundation is built to bolster understanding of diverse perspectives involved in making real-life choices about habitat, energy and other natural resource uses. Students who have gone through this program are much more likely to be prepared for the complicated questions with which they will be faced.

Routt County students have one of the best classrooms in the country right here in their own backyard. It has been my honor to drop the iPhone, turn off the TV and help them explore it.

Jake Castle is a naturalist with Yampatika and is responsible for delivering Yampatika’s Environmental Literacy Program in the South Routt School District.

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