The Nature of Learning

A new law supports environmental education and hands-on, field-based learning experiences

"When it started to rain, I was really worried about the kids' attitudes. But, to my surprise, they started cheering and were excited to be caught in the rain. One student shouted, "this is the best day of my life!" and another (who usually has a tough time in the classroom) commented, "I never knew science could be this fun!""

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law. The much-anticipated bill supports environmental literacy and conservation curricula as a part of a well-rounded education and highlights the power of field study and service learning to enhance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

Replacing the No Child Left Behind Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act includes provisions that bolster learning, both inside and outside of school, including:

  • Opportunities for community-based organizations to partner with schools to “strengthen the academic program of the school though activities which may include expanded learning time, before- and after-school programs, and summer programs and opportunities.”
  • Expansion of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, providing opportunities for community-based organizations to partner during “summer recess."
  • Funding to develop and implement programs and activities that support access to STEM activities including “hands-on learning” and “field-based or service learning” to enhance understanding of STEM subjects.
  • Allowance for use of funds to support “well-rounded” educational opportunities, including the addition of environmental education programs.
  • Unique opportunities for community-based organizations to provide innovative programs and strategies for identifying and educating students who may not be served by traditional gifted and talented programs.

While details are yet to come, the bill shines a light on the many benefits of time spent actively learning in nature and promises financial support for the kind of engaging and powerful outdoor experiences that Dunes Learning Center delivers.

"We know that real learning requires both an intellectual and an emotional component. Our students were joyful, awed, challenged, and encouraged through this program."

Under Title IV of the new act, environmental education and environmental literacy programs would be eligible for funding through 21st Century Community Learning Center grants—welcome news to schools, communities and families struggling to provide these valuable opportunities to their students.

In the last month alone, several classrooms have had to cancel their scheduled spring trips to Dunes Learning Center, citing financial challenges and the looming threat of a Chicago teachers strike—depriving hundreds of students of the rich educational experience the new law seeks to encourage.

On their website, The North American Association for Environmental Education notes, "Decades of research has shown that while knowledge is an important component of how people act, there is often no direct link between what people know and what they do. In reality, other factors—how people feel, what their priorities are, whether they know how to do something, and more—come into play when people decide to do something or not."

Anyone who has participated in or observed a Dunes Learning Center program, has seen firsthand, nature’s power to inspire student learning and comprehension. The eve of the National Park Service centennial anniversary seems an appropriate time to recognize, promote and support these opportunities, but will it be enough to get kids outside?

We will share further details about ESSA as they become available, but in the meantime, we urge educators, parents and communities to provide their students with the field-based environmental learning experiences that this new law provides and advocates for. Dunes Learning Center offers curriculum-based residential and outreach programs for all ages. For availability, or to schedule a presentation at your school, contact Dunes Learning Center at (219)395-9555 or email

For the full text of the Every Child Succeeds Act, visit