What is Environmental Education?

What is Environmental Education?

This is a question I am often asked when I identify myself as an “Environmental Educator.” More often than not, less informed people equate it with “tree hugger,” or “hippie.” Those stereotypes are only a couple labels that could potentially fall under the large umbrella that is environmental education, also known as EE.

I am often called a "Tree Hugger" by my friends. I can't imagine why.

I am often called a “Tree Hugger” by my friends. I can’t imagine why.

The Definition

The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) explains that EE “teaches children and adults how to learn about and investigate their environment, and make intelligent, informed decisions about how they can take care of it.” It can be taught in the classroom and in settings such as nature centers, parks, zoos, etc., and can involve a number of subjects beyond science. “ ‘Done right,’ EE not only leads to environmentally literate people, but also helps increase student academic achievement.”

Now, I am not writing this article simply to regurgitate information I have found on the web. The NAAEE provided the best and most concise explanation I could find, but I intend to tell you in my own words what the world of EE does.

Camp Carlisle

Camp Carlisle (Now known as the North Central 4-H Center) was a BIG deal at my elementary school. The fifth grade classes at the school had participated in it for years and years and it had built up quite a reputation that eventually filtered through all the grades. EVERYONE knew that 5th grade had the best field trip, and everyone could not wait for his or her turn. My turn did indeed come, and soon we were all piled onto big yellow buses that were headed toward the fabled Camp Carlisle (conveniently located in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky).

Little Arri on the low ropes  course at Camp Carlisle (2001)

Little Arrianne on the low ropes course at Camp Carlisle (2001). Awww.

After the three-hour drive, all I can remember now was that Camp Carlisle was a whirlwind of nature classes, camp food, and cabin time. We went through a forest and found a tree that was at least 200 years old and took 6-7 children to wrap completely around it. The owner of the Reptile Zoo in Slade, Kentucky who (at the time) had been clinically dead due to snake venom FIVE TIMES did a program for us with both venomous and non-venomous snakes. I was in the front row, and I still remember wondering what I was going to do if one of those snakes managed to escape his snake hook. I did challenge courses, climbed rock walls, and learned the meaning of teamwork by doing co-op activities. One of the biggest things that still remains with me today is when the instructors took us out into a field at night where there was absolutely no light pollution. I have never seen so many stars as I did that night, and it was the first time I had ever glimpsed the Milky Way Galaxy. And who can forget the trick with the Wint-O-Green Lifesavers? If you don’t know the trick, look it up. It is amazing. I really did not want to go home.


I did not know the extent to which the lessons I learned at Camp Carlisle would follow me. It was only when I began working in EE that I realized just how much it had affected me. Sure, I’ve been a Girl Scout all of my life, and my parents taught me to appreciate the outdoors, but it wasn’t until I went to the biggest classroom the world has to offer, learning the same lessons I would learn in school, seeing them IN ACTION right before my eyes, that I really began to appreciate our Earth. As a result of this, I wanted to work with animals. I majored in Biology. I went to Costa Rica. I discovered that the thing Camp Carlisle did for me had a name:  Environmental Education. All of these decisions and discoveries built on the fact that I had been taught to appreciate our environment and everything connected with it.

Arrianne is pictured with Louie, a eurasian subspecies of Barn Owl and permanent resident of the Glen Helen Raptor Center in Yellow Springs, OH.

Arrianne is pictured with Louie, a eurasian subspecies of Barn Owl and permanent resident of the Glen Helen Raptor Center in Yellow Springs, OH.

I now teach students in the same way I was taught. I’ve led day hikes, night hikes (complete with lifesavers), super sandy beach walks, incredibly muddy marsh walks, and team-building activities. I’ve watched students eyes light up as I bring out an animal ambassador for them to meet – be it a bird of prey, a snake, or even simply a turtle. Some of my students had not even seen a white-tailed deer before I met them and showed them the forest. I had a group of boys that wanted nothing more than for me to identify every single plant they encountered on the trail that day. I’ve even taught students that you can hum to a Periwinkle Snail to coax it out of its shell. These kids LOVE it. Students are hungry for hands-on, experiential knowledge. Not every child will become an environmental educator, but EE at least provides him or her an opportunity to breed a sense of respect and wonder within them about our natural world.

I am a product of Environmental Education.


And I can honestly say it is one of the best things to have ever happened to me.

Have you participated in an Environmental Education program or are involved in one? Share your story by commenting below!

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