The Compassionate Educator:
Empathy and Environmental Education
common challenge in environmental education is working with students who feel disconnected from their environment. This disconnection not only impedes a student’s ability to understand how natural systems function, it also affects how they value the natural world. This is caused not necessarily from lack of education, but the lack of focus on types of learning that build social-emotional skills in students.
Environmental work is inherently about responding to the needs of a changing planet. Environmental education must also continually focus on responding to the needs of our students so that they can grow to do the same for others. The study of nature is the study of relationships, and we would be wise to include ourselves in that definition, and perhaps even more importantly, those around us.
Author and educator Joseph Cornell shares that, “Our enjoyment and appreciation of life depends on our ability to sense feelings of other creatures, escaping our self-definitions to taste the joy of self-forgetful empathy with others” (Cornell, 1998, p.33). If young people are not well practiced in putting themselves into perspectives outside of their normal selves, how can they be expected to understand and care for the natural world?
Through my own reflections and experience as a field instructor at Islandwood, “a school in the woods”, located in Washington state, I have witnessed the value of being able to take on other perspectives. By adopting new points of view, we are better able to make informed and meaningful connections with ourselves, with others, and with our environment. As educators, the opportunites we provide our students largely do not come from the knowledge we can impart, rather our ability to engage students in experiences that speak to where they are coming from in life. To teach in this way, we must be willing to step out of our own experience from time to time and into the experiences of others in our community. Fortunately, with practice and thoughtful action, empathy can be used to increase the impact of our teaching.
In Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, the authors describe a progression toward empathy that begins as students learn to recognize and express their own needs. “Over time and with your encouragement, they will go beyond asserting their needs into taking responsibility for them and being proactive about them” (Young, Haas, and McGown, 2010, p. 268). This growing sense of responsibility might be observed in simple acts, like noticing a student plan ahead by bringing warm and dry clothing. It might be a student who articulates that they are uncomfortable with a certain aspect of an activity and opens a conversation to plan an alternative.
Young, et al. go on to describe how this behavior often expands into a greater awareness of others and tending to their needs as well (2010). I have witnessed this progression in my students as I see them begin to speak up for each other. Students also feel more comfortable affirming the positive attributes that their peers bring to the group, and begin to feel a sense of comradery and pride with group identity.
“This same tending sensibility will also show itself as care for the natural world -and especially one’s own native romping grounds” (Young, et al., 2010, p. 268). In watching how self-care can grow into caring for others, it’s easy to imagine this expanding beyond just people and encompassing the environment as well. Developing a sense of place begins when a person starts to have deeper familiarity with their surroundings, and ultimately begins to feel at home where they are. Feeling a sense belonging is a true testament to the number and quality of the relationships built.
Helping Students to Cultivate Empathy
An important way to help a group of students begin to see from perspectives other than their own is by helping each individual realize the interconnectedness present within a community. One way to encourage this sense of interpersonal connection is by engaging them in team-building challenges. Of course there are millions of activities that achieve this—I’ve seen wonders happen when I challenge group of ten students to transport themselves 25 feet across an expanse of “shark-infested hot lava” using only four foam seat-pads as stepping stones. They become invested in a successful outcome for the group and along the way, they discover the role that each person plays and how they can more carefully and effectively communicate with one another.
These types of play-based collaborations have helped groups of students with intense trust and interpersonal challenges to become significantly more community-minded and thoughtful of each other’s needs. Sometimes, we must recognize that there is more work than can be achieved in our time together with students, but we must not let that stop us from trying.
One of my favorite activities to facilitate with students to dive even deeper into empathy is to engage them in storytelling from the perspective of a non-human element of the natural world. Students get to create their own narrative, which could be a short story, poem, or comic about any living or nonliving component found in our place.
One memorable story came from a student who, after having trouble coming up with ideas for his story, eventually wrote a beautiful piece about a plant he had learned about earlier in the day, the Evergreen Huckleberry:
One time there was [an] Evergreen Huckleberry. People and animals came every second to take the berry. A bird comes and make a house out of you, but the evergreen huckleberry can’t do nothing. So every time it grows [berries], people or animals take it. The tree was mad…because they were eating its berry. It [wanted] revenge and a 10-year-old kid came and said, ‘Stop, we were not hurting you, we were only [taking] berries because it taste good and we take out the seeds and grow another tree. No big deal.’”
Another student wrote from the perspective of a Salal plant that lives through the challenges of each season and ultimately feels unwanted by the other members of the forest community. She wrote,
“A small blueberry tree [looked] at me and said, ‘Salal you are great just like you are. You don’t need to be bigger and we need you. We need you, like you have very [delicious] and sweet [berries] and animals need you. Look, the [deer] needs you for your [berries].’ Salal said ‘Cool, I’m special.’”
In both of these stories, students are demonstrating their understanding of ecological relationships but also have some compelling themes of personal struggle. Both stories have moments when the main character is feeling underappreciated until another member of the community shows them they are valued. People of all ages struggle with self-confidence or feeling like an outsider. These stories illustrate how students can identify threads of connection across boundaries. This helps them develop new interpretations of environmental relationships andf also interpersonal relationships.
Another strength of perspective storytelling is that it helps students to view the natural world through a creative lens, and allows them to do so on their own terms and in their preferred medium. The perspective storytelling activity I shared with my students involved writing, but perspective storytelling can be done with singing, rapping, dancing, acting, or any other interpretation. By giving them flexibility in how they complete the activity, students will be more successful in reaching the goals of connecting with place and practicing empathy.
Showing Students We Care
Environmental and outdoor education inherently provides experiences that are new and often uncomfortable for students. Some students have spent very little time outdoors, some are away from their families for the first time, and some are working with people they don’t know very well. It is a vulnerable time for many, and often students’ interpersonal and intrapersonal challenges are placed secondary to content. The best way we can teach empathy is by practicing it ourselves.
I frequently encounter students with anxiety from being away from home. It is incredibly difficult for a student to experience the wonders of nature when they are in tears and sick to their stomach from being anxious. I approach these students by thinking about where I was at 10 years old. I remember being at outdoor school being unable to sleep, staying up at night crying, and feeling so alone in my discomfort. By stepping into the shoes of my 10-year-old self, I am better able to help students feel like they are being heard and help them persist through their challenges. I acknowledge the difficulty and pain, but remind them of the ways in which I’ve watched them succeed during our time together.
Being empathetic toward students also helps us as educators be more responsive to diverse groups of students. Something as seemingly straightforward as writing in a nature journal may cause great stress for an English Language Learner or a student with different learning abilities. It’s important for us to assess how we are connecting with our students, because it ultimately affects how they will be able to connect with the natural world
Many educators feel constrained when their curricula is focused on meeting state and national achievement standards. Some may not realize that NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) was designed to improve the equity of science education and serve diverse populations and learners (Quinn, 2015). At its core, NGSS help students explore concepts that are applicable across many different scales and subjects.
It is precisely this adaptability to a broad range of learners that demonstrates how integral empathy is in science teaching. An important tenet of NGSS is to create an environment where students feel at home and are “welcomed as full members, and invited to share their ideas and participate fully” (Quinn, 2015, p. 16). Reaching this place of comfort will happen after learning to be appropriately responsive to the needs of the students. Getting there could be as simple as providing opportunities for movement within lessons, inviting them to incorporate personal or family stories as part of the activity, or by keeping the focus on experience rather than outcome.
Making content more relevant to student lives can help concepts feel less abstract and more tangible. Kathy Liu Sun (2017) suggests incorporating guests to share their perspective and speak from experience. Hearing from voices that students can identify with helps add personal meaning and relevance. When learning is rooted in the experiences of real people and real places, students will recognize the authenticity and be more able to make connections back to themselves, their families, and their communities.
In her 2012 novel, Wonder, R.J. Palacio writes, “It’s not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend” (p. 312). I interpret this to mean that we can treat others with kindness, but it means little if we are not working towards creating a meaningful relationship. In environmental education, we must prioritize relationship-building if we are to truly show that we care for future generations and the planet. By being present and attentive to student needs, we can help them cultivate a rich and meaningful connection to nature. By helping create these relationships, we are helping to create a future where people are fully invested in and advocate for the wellbeing of their natural and human communities.
Tom Stonehocker is a naturalist, graduate student, and field instructor who works with 4th & 5th-grade students at Islandwood, an outdoor school on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Cornell, Joseph. (1998) Sharing Nature With Children. Nevada City, CA: DAWN Publications
Palacio, R. J. (2012). Wonder. New York: Knopf
Quinn, Helen. (2015) Science and Engineering Practices for Equity. In NGSS for All (pp.7-18). Arlington, VA: NSTA
Sun, Kathy Liu. (2017) The Importance of Cultivating Empathy in STEM Education. In Science Scope. April/May. Pp. 6-8.
Young, J., Haas, E., and McGown, E. (2010) Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. Shelton, WA: OWLink Media.