Christy Merrick serves as the director of the Natural Start Alliance, a project of the North American Association for Environmental Education. An environmental educator for nearly 20 years, Christy has worked in universities, international nonprofits, local organizations, state agencies, and private companies—always with an eye toward helping people build environmental literacy and meaningful connections to nature. She holds a bachelor's degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida and a master's degree in Environmental Management from Yale University. When Christy is not working, she likes to swim, surf, and play with her family on the beaches of South Florida, where she lives and works.
The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) is the professional association for environmental educators in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. In 2013, NAAEE launched a major new strategic initiative called the Natural Start Alliance to focus on ensuring that environmental education begins with the very youngest learners: infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.
Research shows that high-quality education in the first years of life pays dividends for a lifetime in terms of future learning, earning, and social success. Environmental education enhances early childhood education in important ways. Nature-based play and exploration helps boost creativity, problem solving, concentration, and cooperation. Outdoor play is known to improve children’s health in obvious ways, such as reducing BMI, but also in surprising ways, such as reducing the risk of myopia and boosting the immune system. In addition, early experiences with nature and the environment can help foster feelings of care and concern for the natural world, positive feelings about children’s ability to work together to affect change, and an early understanding of the responsibilities of being part of a community.
The Natural Start Alliance employs a collective impact model, bringing the field together to work toward a shared goal of ensuring that all children receive the benefits of nature-based education in early childhood. Research indicates, however, that early childhood educators may not have the professional training necessary to provide environmental education in numbers large enough to reach a majority of children. As a result, Natural Start is embarking on a new project to build online professional learning opportunities, linking on-the-ground training centers across the country.
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