Photo by Jim Martin
Why Environmental Educators Shouldn’t
Give Up Hope
by Jacob Rodenburg
I’m trying hard not to get discouraged. Being an environmental educator in today’s world feels like you are asked to stop a rushing river armed only with a teaspoon.
There are so many issues to be worried about—from climate change to habitat destruction, from oceans of plastic to endangered species, from the loss of biodiversity to melting glaciers. And the list goes on. The field itself has become ever more siloed and compartmentalized over time, leaving schools, parents, and outdoor programs with little unified guidance. How do we teach kids—in a hopeful and empowering way—about today’s formidable challenges? And how do we translate this increase in knowledge about environmental issues into action?
Children today are given few opportunities to be outside. In a school system rife with worry about liability, it is simply easier to stay indoors. Insurance rates are cheaper if kids are contained, accounted for, and “safe” inside.
Yet the safety argument needs to be turned on its head: It is unsafe NOT to take children outside, not to provide them with rich immersion time in the living world. Leaving kids indoors cuts them off from the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a living being that shares a world with other living beings. Children have a right to experience the joy of discovering the richness, complexity, and diversity of life.
Children’s disconnect from their surroundings and their environment does not stem from a lack of desire. As an outdoor educator, I have spent many happy hours with school children tramping through wetlands, lifting up rotten logs, and canoeing through still waters hearing comments like “Wow! This is cool!” To fulfill children’s need to connect, the field must develop a coordinated and developmentally appropriate approach—one that is rooted in what kids are ready to learn at each age.
Building Age-appropriate Environmental Education
Children learn about the natural world in vastly different ways as they grow up. Environmentalists are keen to teach children about global warming, pollution, species depletion, and a whole range of admittedly important issues, but they forget that younger children aren’t cognitively, perhaps even psychically, ready for this.
Young children are, however, always ready to love the natural world. Connecting with nature is about establishing a relationship and building intimacy. What is the story of the land near where a child lives? How did that oak get that large hole in it? Who lives under this decomposing log? If we think about tending to and nurturing relationships, then we’ll remember to take kids to the same places over and over again. We’ll help them find their magic places, their stories of that place and, more importantly, their place within that place. We will teach them the power and possibility of restoring nature in their school yards, their backyards, and in nearby parks.
Kids connect best to places through stories and faces. A teacher once shared a story with me about a mystery bird that had built a nest in a parking lot. After doing a bit of research, the children found out that this bird was called a killdeer. They watched the bird as she did her broken wing trick (to lead predators away from the nest). Over the days, they watched her scoop out her nest and sit upon it. They cordoned off an area with yellow emergency tape to protect her from cars. They watched her raise her young. This was their killdeer, and they would have done anything to protect her. The students became involved in her unfolding story, and the killdeer suddenly had a face. In a way, she revealed herself to them.
Another teaching tip: young children love micro environments. A friend of mine told me about a time when he took his children, 4 and 5 years old, up to an incredible view of a valley. He asked, “Isn’t this beautiful?” and watched in amazement as his kids hunkered down and stared at the ants scurrying at their feet instead.
Finally, young children adore discovery. It is the art of an educator to know what to say and what to refrain from saying. If I had a job description, it would be simply this: to help reveal wonder and cultivate awe. I take my students to a place called Salamander Alley and say, “I wonder what’s under that log?” If they find a salamander, there is a palpable feeling of joy in the discovery. Had I said, “Let’s go find some salamanders. They’re probably under this log,” the effect would have been completely different. When a child finds something, I let them own that discovery. I honor and celebrate it. The power of this kind of learning can never be undervalued.
Neil Everenden writes that we do not end at our finger tips. Instead, we radiate out into the landscape. We are inextricably bound up in the processes of life. With every breath in and out we are part of the natural systems that surround us. Our role today is to guide our children, in ways that resonate with their interests and development, to realize this connection.
Where to Go From Here
We can create nature-rich communities where kids feel a deep and abiding love for the living systems that we all are immersed in. Eventually, children will learn even to go beyond sustaining and to engage in acts of regeneration. That is where true hope resides.
Here’s hoping we can all coordinate our efforts throughout every age and stage of a child’s development. We need to work collaboratively with schools, parents, community groups, faith groups, governments, and non-governmental agencies to help future generations love, learn about, care for, protect, and enhance the environment. Indeed the future of the planet depends upon it.
Jacob Rodenburg is Executive Director of Camp Kawartha and The Camp Kawartha Outdoor Education Centre, located in Ontario, Canada. He is a contributing author in the Worldwatch Institute’s EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.