Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Environmental education or 'Ecophobia'!

Several themes feature in the lives of primary aged children. Adventure,exploring, maps and paths,special places, imagination and gathering things are part of their natural play - the best curriculums connect with these themes.Through such activities children develop a strong sense of place and environmental responsibility.

Now and then you come across a book that has the effect of clarifying ideas that you have held for years. One such book for me is 'Childhood and Nature' by David Sobel.

Exploring the natural world has been an important part of my life since boyhood leading to my becoming a Nature Study Specialist and later Science Adviser. As a class teacher, exploring the environment was feature of my programme. Such studies allowed my students to tap into their interests and learn how to research and express their ideas in language, and the creative arts, as a natural learning process.

This, Sobel writes, is the best way to develop a sense of place and and to develop a respect for nature leading to students leading ecologically responsible lives

Environmental education is preferable to imposing adult studies on students such saving rain forests, whales, polar bears, penguins and studying pollution and global warming. Sobel calls this ' catastrophe' approach 'ecophobia' - placing responsibility on young children to save our 'fragile' world and in the process developing anxiety about the future. He suggest, no 'ecological tragedies before the fourth grade'. Sobel follows environmentalist Rachel Carson's advice, of building through experience 'a sense of wonder and love for the earth', as a more positive approach. 'Early learning is not primarily to educate or inform, but to foster love and caring' of the natural world.

Sobel quotes research that most environmental education does not lead to later environmental actions. Such responsibility develops from people who have developed a true love of nature from an early age.

Sobel believes in 'place based education', making exploring the immediate environment and tapping students curiosity, as the basis of education. It is exactly this sentiment that a group of teachers I worked with years ago believed in strongly.

It is time to return to such a 'creative' approach. Our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum asks teachers to see their students as active 'seekers, users,and creators' of their own learning. Such a curriculum, offering such flexibility, would have been welcome to the creative pioneer teachers I worked with decades ago.

Developing a sense of wonder, educating student's sensory awareness and following up areas of interest is more basic than literacy and numeracy and, indeed, such skills arise out of student centred experienced based environmental programmes.

That our students no longer are 'allowed' to explore their environment without supervision makes such an education through schools even more important.

Sobel outlines a number of deep childhood impulses that could develop into curriculum design themes for primary aged children. For those who can remember their own childhoods they will be familiar.

Students have a thirst for adventure, to expand their immediate geographic horizons - the chance to explore without knowing exactly what is going to happen. Sensitive teachers ( or parents) build on ideas that 'emerge'. Patches of bush, seashore, streams, wild areas, city walks and parks all await exploration.

Students live in their imaginations. Creative teachers create classrooms where imagination is valued. Exploring can be fun and a source of imaginative interpretations. Young children happily enter into a world of pretend and fantasy playing in their environment

Caring for animals is another childhood theme. It is no coincidence, Sobel writes, that animals feature strongly in children's literature. Children have an empathy for animals and caring for them will leads to a desire to protect endangered animals. Lucky the children whose teachers keep small pets in the classroom. As well such animals provide an audience to many a child's secret thoughts!

Another theme is 'maps and paths'. Young children like to get to know their immediate world, exploring paths and making maps. Few are able to do this today without supervision - and many children never walk anywhere, even to school. Making maps from home to school, local geography and exploring the source of streams, are areas to be explored. Making scale maps, exploring with a compass, 'treasure' maps - all lead into maths.

Special places are another feature of young people lives.In our day we all had forts, huts, tree houses or other 'special' places. Even huts made indoors represent this universal theme. All require imagination and creativity. Opportunities for this inventive play outdoors has all but disappeared.

I once visited a rural school that provided hundreds of fence battens which the children developed into forts and huts - new structures each day. Special places would an interesting class theme. The school, and the classroom itself, ought to be a special place for exploring the children's world and imagination. Children can adopt 'special places' in the school grounds to sit and reflect in. The environment is full of special places to study: pas, historic places, and hilltop views.

Another theme Sobel writes about is 'small worlds'. Children have fascination for making models of natural environments and historical places. Small worlds can be created by gardens featuring native plants.

The final theme of childhood is hunting and gathering. Children like collecting and hunting for things and then sorting and classifying them. Rocks , leaves, digital images, all can be collected and studied. Providing it is done sensibly collecting can be taken advantage of as part of class studies. All studies are searches for knowledge and, as in the best hunts, the outcomes are often unpredictable. This is as it ought to be.

All the above develop an ecological literacy by involving students in actions that develop a love and a appreciation of their immediate natural world.

For Sobel , 'hunting for treasure is one of the core metaphors for what education is all about. One of the objectives of schooling should be to engage students in searching for the meaning of life.' When students, he continues, 'get really enraptured in a topic and start to search for pieces of information, see the connections between different ideas, and then glimpse the big pattern, they are really engaged in kind of treasure hunt'. This, he says, is the basis of what theorists call 'constructivist learning' - 'the process of doing research and probing into the hidden recesses of a subject'.

Sobel's 'place based education' is similar to the inspiration for the environmental integrated teaching that I was involved in years ago.

Students who learn to be respectful of the environment, and involve themselves in protective actions, are in a position to practice ecological behaviours in later life. This is better than the 'premature rain forest education for young children', asking student's to solve overwhelming problems.

Developing positive attitudes leads to positive behaviour. We need, Sobel concludes his book, to teach children from an early age to to learn that it that their behaviour that makes a difference.' 'We have spent too much time, he says, focusing on conveying environmental knowledge and way too little time on developing environmental behaviours. By presenting students with 'ecophobia' issues we are breeding a sense of helplessness and anxiety.

It all begins with playing in nature with the help of supportive adults, rather than watching videos about environmental issues. We need to re-connect children with their natural world and develop school communities that care about their environment.

It is all about valuing children's sense of wonder, recognising their inherent fascination with nature, and protecting, at all costs, their love of learning.


Jody Hayes said...

YES! YES! YES! I'll have to get a copy of this book!!!! (and the powerpoint you promised ... see ... I won't forget)

Bruce said...

I haven't forgotten. CD not copied yet.I got the book thru Amazon. The book mentioned in my latest blog is great to.

Anonymous said...

Let's hope schools take Sobel's advice and create schools as places for reflective in depth learning rather than contributing to achievement anxiety. Are their such schools, or are schools aslo part of the problem?