There is so much children can learn from the great outdoors! We spoke with Bianca Myrick, executive director of the Virginia Association of Environmental Education to learn how families can explore the environment together and raise kids who care for the planet. Bianca shares ideas on how you can replace screentime with green time at home and advocate for environmental education in your child’s school.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester.
Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland. And we are your co-hosts.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: Today we're talking about how we can teach our children to be good stewards of our planet. Young people around the world are using their voices to combat climate change and protect the environment. But I often wonder where does that passion for the planet start and how can we instill that into our own children?
Helen Westmoreland: That is a very important wondering, Kisha. My daughter has recently been really into talking about not polluting. They must be learning that at daycare and recycling. So she has a lot of questions about why people litter and what we can do to take care of our earth. It's very cute, but I'm still trying to figure out the answers to those questions and activities we can do at home to support it. How about you, Kisha? What does supporting the environment look like in your house?
Kisha DeSandies Lester: Well, littering is a big topic for sure, especially around our own house. Pick up after yourself, but we also have plants. I have plants inside the house and flowers around our house when it's spring and summertime and I always wanna have an herb garden and so I try to have Ellington and Charlotte, who's only two, but just get them excited about being in the earth and helping me out even if they don't know everything.
And then just showing them how exciting it is to use our rosemary or our mint to make tea and thyme to make meals. They really see it go from beginning to end and, and see how the earth works.
Helen Westmoreland: Oh, that's fun. Well, I am so excited to explore this topic even further today with our great guest, Bianca Myrick. Bianca Myrick is the Executive Director of the Virginia Association for Environmental Education, a professional network that empowers and uplifts educators to support environmental literacy, education, and equitable outdoor access. As a former fifth and sixth grade teacher, she loves being able to center you through her consulting work with businesses, individuals, and organizations. Bianca is also an adjunct professor at Virginia State University, welcome to the show, Bianca.
Bianca Myrick: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Helen Westmoreland:Thank you for joining us. So we'd love to start just hearing a little bit about you and your journey to how you ended up at the Virginia Association for Environmental Education.
Bianca Myrick: Yeah, so it's a really interesting journey. First off, I am a mother.
Helen Westmoreland: the most important part of the bio.
Bianca Myrick: Yes, I'm a mother. I'm a mother. I think that's so important. And I'm a former educator. I saw the position open with the Environmental Education Association and I was intrigued by it because of my background in education. I did primarily science and history. A lot of inquiry-based exploratory learning that was rooted in a lot of the same foundational principles that environmental education is rooted in. I really love the work that I do because it's really rooted in community. And I still get to work with children and I get to support educators. So I feel very fortunate in the work that I do.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's awesome. What are the big issues, Bianca, that you're seeing being addressed in environmental education?
Bianca Myrick: Well, I think there's a lot of issues that are happening that are international in scope. Some are national in scope and some are more localized. We have issues of climate change, pollution. We have issues of unclean air and water, inequitable outdoor access.We know that being outdoors is best for kids and it's best for us as adults. It improves physical and mental health, but we've gotta address like, is outdoors safe for everyone? So there's just a lot of different issues that range from, I guess you can say issues within the natural environment, but also some social issues in the environmental space. And so environmental education addresses these issues by making people more informed, by allowing people to focus on community engagement, inviting all people into the equation to make good decisions for our earth, but also to make good decisions for people. Because we can't forget that the environment doesn't just mean, air, water, plants, animals. People are very much at the center of that, and so environmental education is a way to address these things, but also from the lens of community building. Environmental education is good for everyone. And it really starts with our children. I hear both of you talk about, the conversations that are happening in your household. And it's funny because there was a study that was done years ago on how the habits of children in regards to the environment, often rub off on the parents.
Helen Westmoreland: Oh, interesting.
Bianca Myrick: Yes. So how children learn about the environment.
Helen Westmoreland: They're always shaping us one way or the other.
Bianca Myrick: Yes. They learn. I know. Yes. They learn about these things that they should be doing, and then they come home and they say, Oh, mom, grandma, dad, you, you shouldn't do that. Or, well, can we recycle? The children will hold us accountable. So it's actually funny that we can definitely count on our kids to really pave the way and their habits rub off on us.
Helen Westmoreland: Well, you've sort of started to answer this, but I'm from a day and age where, we did just have science in history. We didn't have an environmental education class. Right. Could you describe for me maybe for some of the other listeners, what does environmental education look like? Like is it something that's embedded in all the classes? Is it a separate class? Like what is it and how do you know if your school is doing it?
Bianca Myrick: Right. That's a good question. So it can look like a variety of things. It can be embedded in everything, and it should be embedded in everything because the environment is everything. There are specific classes, of course, as children get older, like when they go to high school, they may wanna take a specific focus. So what environmental education could look like is very general or explicit. It could just be doing a lesson outside. So that doesn't mean that it has to be a science lesson, but it could mean, “Hey, we're gonna go and take our math lesson and go outside.” It could be science focused, it could be solving an environmental problem where you give children a scenario that has to do with the environment and they have to come up with a solution, or they have to work together to develop a model that's going to clean up something. I remember when I was teaching fifth grade, we had this awesome project where the students worked in groups and they had to develop a model to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage patch.
And then they had to present, but they didn't just present to the class, they were presenting to parents. They presented to school leaders. Oh yes, it was so fun. That's really awesome. Yeah. So it could look like taking students or taking your children on a hike just to make observations and maybe they're using those observations and they're collecting samples for something that they're gonna do in the classroom. So it can look like a variety of different things. And some of it is gonna be very niched, meaning it's focusing on environmental systems and issues.
And then some of it is like, Hey, you know what? We're gonna go outside and learn today, we're gonna go outside and read a book. Or maybe I've seen schools that have outdoor classrooms and it doesn't have to be something super elaborate. It could just be a dedicated space to go outdoors, where children can learn. So, I mean, it can just encompass so many things from, like I said, the general to the very niche and specific.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's super helpful and it's empowering when you can just get your kids outside. And one of the things we see that's popular in schools are school gardens. You can teach so much with school gardens. What have you seen in the field that has been really helpful? Especially having, as you said, the kids go home and share with their parents what they're learning at school in regards to school gardens.
Bianca Myrick: I can remember the school I was teaching fifth grade at, we partnered with a nonprofit that specifically focused on physical fitness and healthy eating. And one of their programs was that they would help build a school garden. They would have a teacher to be a liaison and every week you could sign up for lessons. And so the children really would be able to learn basic gardening skills, how to steward a garden. They also were able to take the harvest home with them. And then they would do cooking lessons or cooking demos, and the students would be able to taste the food. And so a lot of the food was coming from, the actual garden and they would just bring in like seasonings and things like that.
But it was really cool because students were being exposed to different healthy foods. They were taking these things home and so. When you really think about it these are very foundational skills that I think sometimes get lost, and I think we're moving back to that. It also increases academic engagement. You can tie garden lessons in with whatever your state standards is, whether it's, fertilization or planting or growing. I mean, it just really spans across all standards and fields and I think that, as we talk about systems and social issues, there's an opportunity to talk about how, did you know that some communities are considered food deserts where they don't have access to as much healthy foods or grocery stores as other communities. There's an opportunity to talk about that social issue. And how school gardens or community gardens or urban gardens can be a solution to that.
Helen Westmoreland: I wanna pick up on that cause I think that's a really important intersection between sort of environmental education and activism. right in some way, shape or form. And part of learning about the environment is learning about your impact on others and how they walk and live and all of that. Could you talk, Bianca, a little bit about whether it's community service or even elaborating on some of the social justice things that you've seen? How are you seeing the spirit for activism being supported with environmental education?
Bianca Myrick: Yeah, so I really see it as two components. There is the piece of like, systems, like human and social systems, and then there's the piece of like personal and civic responsibility. Hmm. I definitely see lots of organizations that are doing amazing community work that is really centered around education, but also personal and social responsibility, but also looking at these systems, right? and just thinking of the way that taking care of our environment helps improve systems. Additionally, when it comes to children, a lot of the times what I am seeing in schools, is we have to continue to steward problem-based learning or project-based learning or inquiry-based learning. Where we are allowing students to come up with solutions to real, authentic social issues. Because if you think about it, when they go out into the work, quite often this is the type of work that they're gonna be doing.
Across any career, they're helping someone, they are supporting a community or they're solving some sort of issue. I'll just give you an example. Is we see a lot of tree planting, right. Why is tree planting relevant? Why do we have this personal responsibility to do that? Or why is it that this is connected to systems? Well, some communities are what they call urban heat islands. Where the community doesn't have a lot of trees. They may have a lot of concrete buildings, and it literally absorbs and traps heat, where the temperature within that community is elevated.
And so think about summers. I live in Virginia where. It's just hot here.It's muggy and hot, for no reason. And so like when you think about how that can impact certain communities, like our seniors, or communities where they may not have traditional central air, that can cause health problems.
And so when we plant trees, it creates these canopies of shade. Think about how it feels just walking in a community where there's lots of trees and it's hot outside, but you can feel the shade. It's just a healthier way of being. And so that can be tied to tree planting, and that's something that can be explained to children in a very simple way.
Helen Westmoreland: Yeah, absolutely. That's very helpful. I feel like I know a lot of the things to talk to my daughter about now.eported using e-cigarettes in:
Kisha, what are you wondering?
Kisha DeSandies Lester: I was wondering how can families advocate for this type of environmental education at their child's school?
Bianca Myrick: Yeah, that's a really good question, that's probably gonna differ based on where you are. I will say that some places where families can start is with the building principal. Every school is different. You will have schools that are within the same district and they are on totally different pages,and that's just a fact. And so you could start with the building principal. You could also start with the district like science lead.
The school board meeting is often a place where parents are able to voice their concerns and voice their priorities. You can also start by speaking with your local elected representatives and track and see if there are any bills that are kind of on their radar in regard to environmental education. You can provide public comment or testimony when bills are in session, so there's a number of different approaches.
I also would encourage parents to allow their children to sometimes be involved in that advocacy process, if they're old enough to articulate their thoughts. And I would also encourage parents to know their why. Why do you want more environmental education? So have a clear link between environmental education and what the benefits are. We know student engagement goes up. Academic engagement specifically in areas like math and science increase. Physical health, I mean, who doesn't want to be physically fit? We wanna create a culture of physical wellness where it's not this thing of like, oh, I just go work out at the gym. No, we create a culture of physical wellness and one way to do that is through environmental education. They can talk about the mental health benefits about, how just being outside in nature is healthy for your mental health or think about Oh yeah, think about when students are struggling behaviorally, or they just need a breather. And then, I'm trying to think. Something else could be the decision making skills. Like you want your child to be able to have an education that really gets them to critically think and foster those decision making skills. So, those are just some points that parents can use, when they're speaking to educators or speaking to elected officials and school leaders. And if you're trying to connect it to like, okay, what do these leaders care about? What do the school officials care about?
Well, I believe there's gonna be a clear link between the increased test scores. Let's be real. And what do elected officials care about? Well, I'm sure they care about the economy, right? They care about a vibrant economy. Maybe they care about health. All of these things connect to the environment.
Helen Westmoreland: I love that. I think for our listeners, you've really just described how you frame this from an advocacy perspective to the self-interest, right? Mm-hmm. Of whoever that influencer decision maker is. And a lot of really good points that we can all write down when we're going in having absolutely these conversations. So, You've given us some long-term actions. I wanna talk short-term for a moment. In the intimacy of our homes and communities spring is upon us. What are some of your favorite activities that you encourage families to do with their kids?
Bianca Myrick: Yeah. Okay. So go outside.
Helen Westmoreland: Just get outdoors. Yeah.
Bianca Myrick: Start there. Seriously. We have to start laying the foundation of like replacing the screen with green. Like, get outdoors, let your children go to the park and play. If you live in a neighborhood where you feel like it's safe, let them go play. Let them make up a game. Let them get bored and then let them say, Hey, we gotta figure out another game to play. That is how children foster a love of outdoors and a love of nature is just by taking them out. In addition to that growing plants. When I think about smaller children, lots of sensory related experiences come from outside. So letting them get outside and touch things that's safe. Also, bringing nature indoors, so maybe, picking up some things in nature and creating like a nature table and letting them explore with a little magnifying glass. Definitely taking advantage of museums, zoos. Local parks, state parks, outside camps. You'd be surprised at how many offer free memberships and days where you can just come and explore.
I would also say pollinators. Okay? Teaching our children that pollinators are our friends. Mm-hmm. Now we don't wanna get stung by, that's right. We don't wanna get,
Helen Westmoreland: We're not trying to kill the bees. Right?
Bianca Myrick: Right. But, but pollinators are our friends. And why? Because pollinators actually help with our food systems. Okay. Show me a struggling garden, and I can tell you maybe you need some pollinator plants and creating a pollinator garden. Wow. It's not not that difficult. You can even purchase the plants where they're already grown. Yeah. Taking the children outside and, and just letting them observe the sky at, those are some things that I can think of. I mean, it's just so much.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: My son loves doing that.
Bianca Myrick: Yes, it's so much that you can do from things that really don't take a lot of resources, time and energy to going all out.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: I mean, those were some really amazing tips. And it's been such a great conversation. And just, an important reminder that not just to be environmentally friendly, but that we have to teach our children. And I love the reminder, just have the kids go outside. You don't have to have something really special to do.
Bianca Myrick: Yes. That's probably my favorite one. I know it sounds very like simple, but yes, just encouraging children to be outdoors. I can remember growing up and like that was a thing you did. You was outside all day until the street lights came on. You knew to come in. But you know, now things are a little different, but there's still that important piece of having them get outdoors and as they're outdoors they become more appreciative of the plants and keeping things around them clean.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Bianca. This has been such a great conversation and we've had a lot of fun talking about different ideas and hearing your tips have really inspired me to keep going and doing some new things with my children, as well. Out of everything we discussed, is there one thing families should walk away from this episode knowing?
Bianca Myrick:I want parents to know how important it is to be a model for the children, but to just start small. So like I said, getting outdoors, taking a nature walk, going on Google and looking up your local environmental association or searching for a community-based org that does some sort of environmental service. Taking your children to plant a tree or something like that. Or do a cleanup, just starting small or just sending an email to the principal and saying, “Hey, I would love to know what the school is doing in regard to environmental education. I think it's really important.”
We're not asking the school to transform into a green school right away. No you know what I mean? Because people will hear that. No, the principals, they got a lot on their plate, but where can we start? Where can we start and then build each year from there? And advocating for funding because schools can't do it alone. They need those nonprofit organizations and community collectives to come in and support them. They need those partnerships.
Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's right. Well, I must say I hope we can have some more conversations with you and get more information for our listeners and for our families out there. To our audience listening, thank you so much for joining us and for more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com.