Providing opportunities for students of color to explore
the outdoors and science careers
Text and photos by Sprinavasa Brown
recall the high school science teacher who doubted my capacity to succeed in advanced biology, the pre-med advisers who pointed my friend Dr. Kellianne Richardson and me away from their program and discouraged us from considering a career in medicine – biased advice given under the guise of truth and tough love.
I remember only three classes with professors of color in my four years at college, only one of whom was a woman. We needed to see her, to hold faith that as women of color, we were good enough, we were smart enough to be there. We were simply enough, and we had so much to contribute to medicine, eager to learn, to improve and to struggle alongside our mostly White peers at our private liberal arts college.
These are the experiences that led Kellianne and me to see the need for more spaces set aside for future Black scientists, for multi-hued Brown future environmentalists.
The story of Camp ELSO (Experience Life Science Outdoors) started with our vision. We want Black and Brown children to access more and better experiences than we did, experiences that help them see their potential in science, that prepare them for the potentially steep learning curve that comes with declaring a science major. We want Black and Brown kids to feel comfortable in a lab room, navigating a science library, and advocating for themselves with faculty and advisers. We hope to inspire their academic pursuits by laying the foundation with curiosity and critical thinking.
Creating a sense of belonging
Camp ELSO’s Wayfinders program is our main program for youths in kindergarten through sixth grade. What began as a programmatic response to our community needs assessment – filling the visible gap in accessible, affordable, experiential science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for young Black and Brown children – quickly grew into a refuge space for youth of greater Portland. Wayfinders is all about creating a safe uplifting and affirming space for youth to engage in learning around four key areas: life science, ecology, community and cultural history. While our week-long sessions include field trip sites similar to many mainstream environmental education programs, our approach is sharply focused on grounding the youth experience in environmental justice while elevating the visibility and leadership opportunities for folks of color.
We are creating a special place for Black and Brown youth to have transformative experiences, to create memories that we hope will stick with them until adulthood. Creating such a space comes with difficulties, the type of challenges that force our leadership to make tough decisions that we believe will yield the best outcomes for youth underrepresented in STEM fields. For instance, how to mitigate the undertones of colonization, nationalism, and co-opting of traditional knowledge – harmful practices ingrained in mainstream environmental education.
To do so, we invest in training young adults of color to lead as camp guides. We provide resources to support them in developing the skills necessary to engage youth of diverse ethnicities, backgrounds, socioeconomic status and family structure. Our guides practice taking topics and developing discussion questions and lesson plans that are relevant and engaging. We know that the more our staff represents the communities we serve, the closer we get to ensuring that Camp ELSO programming is responsive to the needs of children of color, authentic to their lived experience, and is a reflection of the values of our organization and community.
In 2019 nearly 100 children of color from greater Portland will participate in Camp ELSO’s Wayfinders program over spring and summer break, spending over 40 hours in a week-long day camp engaging in environmental STEM learning and enjoying the outdoors. We reach more children and families through our community outreach events like “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day: Women of Color Panel” and “Endangered Species Day: Introduction to Youth Activism.”
The most critical aspects of our Wayfinders program happens even before we welcome a single child through our doors. With the intent of purifying the air and spirit, we smudge with cedar and sage to prepare the space. When a child shows up, they are greeted by name. We set the tone for the day with yoga and affirmations to the sounds of Stevie Wonder and Yemi Alade as we strive to expose our kids to global music from diverse cultures.
We have taken the time to ask parents thoughtful questions in the application process to help us prepare to welcome their child to our community. We have painstakingly selected what we feel is a balanced, blended group of eager young minds from diverse ethnic backgrounds: Black, Latinx, the children of immigrants, multi and biracial children of various ethnicities, fuego and magic. Our children come from neighborhoods across Portland and its many suburbs. They come from foster care, single-parent households, affluent homes, homes where they are adopted into loving and beautifully blended families, strong and proud Black families, and intergenerational households with active grandmas and aunties. Consistent with every child and every household is an interest and curiosity around STEM, a love of nature and the outdoors.
The children arrive full of potential and the vitality of youth. Some are shy, and nerves are visible each morning. By the end of the week we’ve built trust and rapport with each of them, we’ve sat in countless circles teaching them our values based in Afrocentric principles, values selected by previous camp guides representing the youth voice that actively shapes the camp’s culture.
On our way to more distant Metro sites like Blue Lake and Oxbow regional parks and Quamash Prairie, we play DJ in the van. Each kid who wants to has an opportunity to share their favorite song with the group, and if you know the words, you’d better belt it out. We share food and pass around snacks while some children rest and others catch up with old friends. Many more are deep in conversation forging new friendships.
When we arrive, we remind the kids of what is expected of them. We have no doubts that each and every child will respect the land and respect our leaders. The boundaries are clear, and our expectations for them don’t change when problems arise. We hold them to the highest standards, regardless of their life situation. We respect, listen, and embrace who they are.
We are often greeted by Alice Froehlich, a Metro naturalist. Our kids know Alice, and the mutual trust, respect and accountability we have shared over the last three years has been the foundation to create field trips that cater to the needs of our blended group – and oh, it is a beautiful group.
At Oxbow, we are also greeted by teen leaders from the Oregon Zoo’s ZAP (Zoo Animal Presenters) program. These teens of color join us each year for what always ends up being a highlight of the week: playing in the frigid waters of the Sandy River, our brown skin baking under the hot summer sun, music in the background and so much laughter. Like family, we enjoy one another’s company.
Then we break into smaller groups and head into the ancient forest. Almost immediately the calm of the forest envelopes our youth. The serenity that draws us to nature turns our group of active bodies into quieted beings content to listen, observe, respond and reflect. It doesn’t take much for them to find their rhythm and adjust to nature’s pace. Similarly, when we kayak the Tualatin River or canoe the Columbia Slough, they are keen to show their knowledge of local plants and taking notice as the occasional bird comes into view. We learn as much from them as we do from our guides.
These are the moments that allow Camp ELSO’s participants to feel welcome, not just to fit in but to belong. To feel deeply connected to the earth, to nature and to community.
Encouragement for my community
As a Black environmental educator I’m always navigating two frames of view. One is grounded in my Americanness, the other is grounded in my Blackness, the lineage of my people from where I pull my strength and affirm my birthright. I wear my identities with pride, however difficult it can be to navigate this world as a part of two communities, two identities. One part of me is constantly under attack from the other that is rife with nationalism, anti-Brownness, and opposition toward the people upon whose lives and ancestry this country was built.
I am a descendant of African people and the motherland. I’m deeply connected to the earth as a descendant of strong, free, resilient and resourceful Black people. The land is a part of me, part of who I am. My ancestors toiled, and they survived, they lived off, they cultivated, and they loved the land.
As a black woman, my relationship with the land and its bounty is a part of my heritage. It’s in my backyard garden, where I grow greens from my great-grandmother’s seeds passed down to me from my mother, who taught me how to save, store and harvest them. Greens from the motherland I was taught to cook by my Sierra Leonean, Rwandese and Jamaican family – aunties and uncles I’ve known as my kin since I was a child. It’s in the birds that roam my backyard, short bursts and squawks as my children chase them. The land is in the final jar my mother canned last summer when the harvest was good, and she had more tomatoes than we could eat after sharing with her church, neighbors and family.
Our connection to the land was lost through colonization, through the blanket of whiteness that a culture and set of values instilled upon us all as westerners living on stolen Indigenous land and working in systems influenced by one dominant culture. Our sacred connection with outdoor spaces was lost as laws set aside the “great outdoors” as if it were for White men only. These laws pushed us from our heritage and erased the stories of our forefathers, forgetting that the Buffalo Soldiers were some of the first park rangers, that the movement for justice was first fought by Black and Brown folks.
We grew our own food before our land was stripped away. We lived in harmony with the natural world before our communities were destroyed, displaced or forcibly relocated. We were healthy and thriving when we ate the food of our ancestors, before it was co-opted and appropriated. We must remember and reclaim this relationship for ourselves and for our children.
We are trying to do this with Camp ELSO, starting with our next generation. Children have the capacity to bring so much to environmental professions that desperately need Black and Brown representation. These professions need the ideas, innovations and solutions that can only come from the lived experiences of people of color. Children of color can solve problems that require Indigenous knowledge, cultural knowledge and knowledge of the African Diaspora. We want to give kids learning experiences that are relevant in today’s context, as more people become aware of racial equity and as the mainstream environmental movement starts to recognize historical oppression of people of color.
We need more spaces for Black and Brown children to see STEM professionals who are relatable through shared experiences, ethnicity, culture and history. We need spaces that allow Black children to experience the outdoors in a majority setting with limited influence of Whiteness – not White people but Whiteness – the dominant culture and norms that influence almost every aspect of our lives.
Camp ELSO is working to be that space. We aren’t there yet. We are on our own learning journey, and it comes with constant challenges and a need to continuously question, heal, build and fortify our own space.
Sprinavasa Brown is the co-founder and executive director of Camp ELSO. She also serves on Metro’s Public Engagement Review Committee and the Parks and Nature Equity Advisory Committee.
Advice for White Environmentalists and Nature Educators
by Sprinavasa Brown
I often hear White educators ask “What should I do?” expressing an earnest desire to move beyond talking about equity and inclusion to wanting action steps toward meaningful change.
I will offer you my advice as a fellow educator. It is both a command and a powerful tool for individual and organizational change for those willing to shift their mindset to understand it, invest the time to practice it and hold fast to witness its potential.
The work of this moment is all about environmental justice centered in social justice, led by the communities most impacted by the outcomes of our collective action. It’s time to leverage your platform as a White person to make space for the voice of a person of color. It’s time to connect your resources and wealth to leaders from underrepresented communities so they can make decisions that place their community’s needs first.
If you have participated in any diversity trainings, you are likely familiar with the common process of establishing group agreements. Early on, set the foundation for how you engage colleagues, a circumspect reminder that meaningful interpersonal and intrapersonal discourse has protocols in order to be effective. I appreciate these agreements and the principles they represent because they remind us that this work is not easy. If you are doing it right, you will and should be uncomfortable, challenged and ready to work toward a transformational process that ends in visible change.
I want you to recall one such agreement: step up, step back, step aside.
That last part is where I want to focus. It’s a radical call to action: Step aside! There are leaders of color full of potential and solutions who no doubt hold crucial advice and wisdom that organizations are missing. Think about the ways you can step back and step aside to share power. Step back from a decision, step down from a position or simply step aside. If you currently work for or serve on the board of an organization whose primary stakeholders are from communities of color, then this advice is especially for you.
Stepping aside draws to attention arguably the most important and effective way White people can advance racial equity, especially when working in institutions that serve marginalized communities. To leverage your privilege for marginalized communities means removing yourself from your position and making space for Black and Brown leaders to leave the margins and be brought into the fold of power.
You may find yourself with the opportunity to retire or take another job. Before you depart, commit to making strides to position your organization to hire a person of color to fill the vacancy. Be outspoken, agitate and question the status quo. This requires advocating for equitable hiring policies, addressing bias in the interview process and diversifying the pool with applicants with transferable skills. Recruit applicants from a pipeline supported and led by culturally specific organizations with ties to the communities you want to attract, and perhaps invite those community members to serve on interview panels with direct access to hiring managers.
As an organizational leader responsible for decisions related to hiring, partnerships and board recruitment, I have made uncomfortable, hard choices in the name of racial equity, but these choices yield fruitful outcomes for leaders willing to stay the course. I’ve found myself at crossroads where the best course forward wasn’t always clear. This I have come to accept is part of my equity journey. Be encouraged: Effective change can be made through staying engaged in your personal equity journey. Across our region we have much work ahead at the institutional level, and even more courage is required for hard work at the interpersonal level.
In stepping aside you create an opportunity for a member of a marginalized community who may be your colleague, fellow board member or staff member to access power that you have held.
White people alone will not provide all of the solutions to fix institutional systems of oppression and to shift organizational culture from exclusion to inclusion. These solutions must come from those whose voices have not been heard. Your participation is integral to evolving systems and organizations and carrying out change, but your leadership as a White person in the change process is not.
The best investment we can make for marginalized communities is to actively create and hold space for leaders of color at every level from executives to interns. Invest time and energy into continuous self-reflection and selfevaluation. This is not the path for everyone, but I hope you can see that there are a variety of actions that can shift the paradigm of the environmental movement. If you find yourself unsure of what action steps best align with where you or your organization are at on your equity journey, then reach out to organizations led by people of color, consultants, and leaders and hire them for their leadership and expertise. By placing yourself in the passenger seat, with a person of color as the driver, you can identify areas to leverage your privilege to benefit marginalized communities.
Finally, share an act of gratitude. Be cognizant of opportunities to step back and step aside and actively pursue ways to listen, understand and practice empathy with your colleagues, community members, neighbors and friends.
Camp ELSO is an example of the outcomes of this advice. Our achievements are most notable because it is within the context of an organization led 100 percent by people of color from our Board of Directors to our seasonal staff. This in the context of a city and state with a history of racial oppression and in a field that is historically exclusively White.
We began as a community-supported project and are growing into a thriving community-based organization successfully providing a vital service for Black and Brown youths across the Portland metro area. The support we have received has crossed cultures, bridged the racial divide and united partners around our vision. It is built from the financial investments of allies – public agencies, foundations, corporations and individuals. I see this as an act of solidarity with our work and our mission, and more importantly, an act of solidarity and support for our unwavering commitment to racial equity.
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.
A Pedagogy for Ecology
by Ann Pelo
s a teacher, I want to foster in children an ecological identity. I believe this identity, born in a particular place, opens children to a broader connection with the Earth; love for a specific place makes possible love for other places. An ecological identity allows us to experience the Earth as our home ground, and leaves us determined to live in honorable relationship with our planet.
We live in a culture that dismisses the significance of an ecological identity, a culture that encourages us to move around from place to place and that posits that we make home by the simple fact of habitation, rather than by intimate connection to the land, the sky, the air. Any place can become home, we’re told. Which means, really, that no place is home.
This is a dangerous view. It leads to a way of living on the Earth that is exploitative and destructive. When no place is home, we don’t mind so much when roads are bulldozed into wilderness forests to make logging easy. When no place is home, a dammed river is regrettable, but not a devastating blow to the heart. When no place is home, eating food grown thousands of miles away is normal, and it is easier to ignore the cost to the planet of processing and shipping it.
Finding a Place
Our work as teachers is to help children to braid their identities together with the place where they live by calling their attention to the air, the sky, the cracks in the sidewalk where the Earth bursts out of its cement cage. For me, teaching in a childcare program in Seattle located next to a canal that links Lake Union and Puget Sound, “place” means the smell of just-fallen cedar boughs and salty, piquant air, the sweet tartness of blackberries (and the scratch of blackberry thorns), the light gray of near-constant clouds, the rough-voiced calls of seagulls, and the rumble of boat engines. It is exhilarating to offer children this place as home ground.
Other places are less compelling as home ground. What does it mean to do this work of connecting children to place when the immediate environment numbs rather than delights the senses? What can we embrace in a school neighborhood dominated by concrete, cars, and convenience stores?
Children’s worlds are small, detailed places—the crack in the sidewalk receives their full attention, as does the earthworm flipping over and over on the pavement after rainfall. Children have access to elements of the natural world that many adults don’t acknowledge. When we, like the children, tune ourselves more finely, we find the natural world waiting for us: cycles of light and dark, the feel and scent of the air, the particularities of the sky—these are elements of the natural world that can begin to anchor us in a place.
Rather than contribute to a sense of disconnection from place by writing off the environments around our most urban schools as unsalvageable or not worth knowing, teachers can instill in children an attitude of attention to the natural world in their neighborhoods. The sense of care for and connection to place becomes the foundation for a critical examination of how that place has been degraded. Rick Bass, in The Book of Yaak, describes his experience of the interplay between love of place and willingness to see the human damage done to that place: “As it became my home, the wounds that were being inflicted upon it—the insults—became my own.”
Every child lives someplace. And that someplace begins to matter when we invite children to know where they are and to participate in the unfolding life of that place—they come to know the changes in the light and the feel of the air, and participate in a community of people who speak of such things.
Cultivating an Ecological Identity
Children know how to live intimately in place; they allow themselves to be imprinted by place. They give themselves over to the natural world, throwing endless rocks into a river, digging holes that go on forever, poking sticks into slivers of dirt in pavement, finding their way up the orneriest tree. They learn about place with their bodies and hearts. We can underscore that intuited, sensual, experiential knowledge by fostering a conscious knowledge of place.
How do we cultivate a love of place in young children’s hearts and minds, moving beyond the tenets of recycling to intimate connection with their home ground? From my experiences as a childcare teacher, I’ve distilled a handful of principles.
• Walk the land.
• Learn the names.
• Embrace sensuality.
• Explore new perspectives.
• Learn the stories.
• Tell the stories.
My primary work is as a teacher in a full-day, year-round childcare program in an urban Seattle neighborhood that serves families privileged by race, class, and education. I’ve also worked closely with teachers and children in urban Head Start programs. The principles I suggest resonate in these widely varying contexts; all children deserve home ground.
Walk the Land
Contemporary U.S. culture is about novelty and fast-moving entertainment: a million television channels to surf, and news stories that flash bright and burn out fast. This disposition to move quickly and look superficially translates to a lack of authentic engagement with the Earth: Get to as many national parks as we can in a two-week vacation, drive to a scenic view, take some photos, and drive to the next place.
As teachers, we must be mindful of this cultural disposition to superficial knowledge. It’s easy to fall into the habit of aiming for novelty, offering children many brief encounters with places, experiences that leave them familiar with the surface, but not the depths. Instead, we ought to invite children to look below the surface, to move slowly, to know a place deeply.
For many years, my emphasis in planning summer field trips was to get to as many city parks and beaches as I could. Each week, we’d head out to two or three different places, so that by the end of the summer we’d taken a grand tour of the city. I thought that by visiting a range of places in Seattle, the children would come to know their city. We had a hoot on those trips, but each place was a first encounter, and offered novelty rather than intimacy. The children came away from those summers not so much with a sense of place as with confusion about how these various places fit together to make up their home ground. We’d skimmed the surface of Seattle, but didn’t know its depths.
Now, my emphasis has shifted. I plan regular visits to the same two or three places over the course of a year. Spending time at the same park and the same beach, we see it change throughout the year. I point out landmarks on the beach to help the children track the tide’s movement up and down the beach. At the park, we choose a couple of trees that we visit regularly; we take photos and sketch them to help us notice the nuances of their seasonal cycles. From the top of a big rock at the park, the children play with their shadows on the ground below, noticing how shadow and light change over the year. The children greet the rhododendron bushes like dear old friends, and know the best places to find beetles and slugs.
My commitment to walking the land consciously with children has changed how I walk with them to the park in our neighborhood. I used to focus our walk on getting there efficiently and safely, and chose our route accordingly. Now, I’ve charted a longer route, one that takes us past a neighbor’s yard full of rosemary and lavender and tall wild grasses. We take our time walking past this plot of earth, and I coach the children to point out what they notice about this familiar place. I worried that the children would become bored, walking the same path every day, or would stop seeing the land, so I developed several rituals for our walk. We pause at the rosemary to monitor changes in its fragrance, buds, and foliage, and to watch for the arrival of spit bugs, whose foamy nests delight the children. We pause at the wild grass to compare its growth to the children’s growth, an inexact but joyfully chaotic measurement.
Learn the Names
When we talk about the natural world, we often speak in generalities, using categorical names to describe what we see: “a bird,” “a butterfly,” “a tree.” We are unpracticed observers, clumsy in our seeing, quick to lump a wide range of individuals into broad, indistinct groups. These generalities are a barrier to intimacy: a bird is a bird is any bird, not this red-winged blackbird, here on the dogwood branch, singing its unique song.
Most of us don’t have much of a repertoire of plant, insect, animal, tree, or bird names; I sure don’t. For many years, I wasn’t particularly interested in learning the names of the flora and fauna, and imagined that learning the names would be a chore, a tedious exercise in memorization. When I turned 40 and visited Utah’s red rock desert, it awakened me to a passionate love, born in my eastern Washington childhood, which I’d forgotten, or never consciously acknowledged: love for a spacious, uncluttered horizon, love for dirt, rock, and sage, for heat and dust and stars, for open sky. Being there taught me that learning the names is an exercise in love. I was in an entirely unfamiliar place, and had only the clumsiest of generic names for what I encountered: a bush, a rock, a lizard. As I began to fall in love with the red rock desert, I wanted to know everything about it, including the names it holds. I bought a field guide and began to learn the names—the identities—of the plants, the creatures, the types of rock. Each name was a step closer into relationship. The names helped me locate myself in the desert.
I carry a field guide to the Pacific Northwest with me now, when I’m out with the children in my group. We take it with us when we walk to the school playground around the corner, and when we go farther afield. We turn to it when we encounter a bug we don’t recognize or find an unfamiliar creature revealed by a low tide. And I’ve created lotto and matching games from the field guide, photocopying images of familiar trees, birds, marine creatures. We use the images for matching games and bingo games: Together, we’re learning the names of this place that is our shared home ground.
In a culture that values intellect more than intuition or emotion, typical environmental education too often emphasizes facts and information in lieu of experience. Plenty of plastic animals, nature games, videos, and books for children invite them to intellectualize—and commodify—the natural world. Teacher resource catalogues offer activity books and games that teach about endangered species, rain forest destruction, pollution, and recycling. These books and games keep the natural world at a distance.
To foster a love for place, we must engage our bodies and our hearts—as well as our minds—in a specific place. Intellectual and critical knowledge needs a foundation of sensual awareness, and, for very young children, sensual awareness is the starting place for other learning. How does the air feel on your skin? What birds do you hear on the playground?
A friend of mine taught in a Head Start program in a housing development that had been the scene of several shootings, and that had more graffiti than green. She wrestled with how to stir children’s numbed senses awake in that harsh landscape where playing outdoors was dangerous. She decided to bring the sensual natural world into her classroom. She added cedar twigs to the sand table, and chestnuts, and stems of lavender. She included pinecones and seashells in the collection of play dough toys. She supplemented her drama area with baskets of rocks and shells, and included tree limbs, driftwood, stumps, and big rocks in her block area. She played CDs of birds native to the Northwest. And in early fall each year, she welcomed the children to her program with feasts of ripe blackberries, making jam and cobbler with the children, telling them about her adventures picking the blackberries in a wild bramble in the alley behind her apartment building.
Explore New Perspectives
Living in a place over time can breed a sense of familiarity, and familiarity can easily slip into a belief that we’ve got the land figured out. We stop expecting to be surprised, to be jolted into new ways of seeing; we become detached from the vitality of a place.
Our challenge is to see with new eyes, to look at the familiar as though we’re seeing it for the first time. When we look closely and allow ourselves to be surprised by unexpected details and new insights, we develop an authenticity and humility in our experience of place, and wake up to its mysteries and delights.
Several years ago, one of the 4-year-old children in my group posed a simple question: Why do the leaves change color? Her question startled me awake: I saw the transformation of color through her eyes, a phenomenon consciously witnessed only once or twice in her young life, and one full of mystery and magic. Her question deserved my full attention, not a recital of the muddled information that I remembered from my science classes in school, and not a quick glance at an encyclopedia. Madeline’s question launched our group on an in-depth study of the lives of leaves that carried us through the seasons.
My co-teacher, Sandra, and I took the children on a walk through the neighborhood to study the trees. Moving from one tree to the next, we began to see a pattern, and shared our observation with the children: the leaves on the outermost branches began to change color before the leaves in the center of the tree. The children built on our observation, adding what they’d noticed: The leaves first changed color on their outermost edges, while the center of the leaves remained green. I suggested that we gather leaves to bring back to our room, where we could study them up close and record what we observed, sketching the details that we saw and adding nuances of color with watercolor paint. As we sketched the lines of the leaves, children pointed out the resemblance between the skeletal lines of leaves—the “bones” of a leaf, the children called them—and the tendons and lines on our hands: “The lines of the leaf feel like human bones.” “The lines are like the lines on our hands.” Excited by the children’s observations, I suggested that we sketch our hands, just as we’d sketched the leaves, knowing that our sketching would help us see ourselves in new ways, as cousins to leaves.
As we sketched, I asked the children to reflect on why the leaves change color in the autumn. “What is it about autumn that makes leaves change from green to red, orange, brown?” The children generated several theories: “In the fall, it’s cold. Leaves huddle together on the ground to get warm. The trees are cold because they don’t have any leaves to keep them warm.” “The color is a coat to keep the leaves warm, because it’s cold in the fall.”
From this analysis, one child made a leap that deepened our conversation: “Leaves get sad when they start to die.” From this decidedly unscientific conjecture, the children forged a potent connection to the leaves: “Like we give comfort to others when they’re sad, the plant needs comfort.” “I think a hug would help a leaf, and being with the leaf.” “Maybe you could stay with it. You just give it comfort before it dies.” “When it drops on the ground, that’s when it needs you.”
At Hilltop, we use an emergent pedagogy, developing curriculum from the children’s questions and pursuits. In our study of the lives of leaves, I experienced the value of this pedagogy, as we lingered with questions, theories, and counter-theories, and with our not knowing. Our emergent curriculum framework allowed us to explore Madeline’s question in the spirit in which it was posed: a question about the meaning of change and the identity of leaves. Through our exploration, we became intimates of leaves, anchored in our place.
Learn the Stories
To foster an intimate relationship with place, we need to know the stories and histories that are linked to that place, just as we do in our intimate relationships with people. In our work with young children, our focus in gathering these stories is as much about the children’s imaginings as it is about scientific facts. We can invite their conjectures to complement the facts, opening the door to heartfelt connections.
Visiting a Head Start program one afternoon, I watched Natalie catch ants on the asphalt slab that served as the program’s playground. She hovered over a crack in the pavement, carefully picking up each ant that crawled from the crack and dropping it into a bucket. Curious about her intention, I asked what she was planning for the ants: “They’re bugs and we hafta kill them.” I imagined contexts in her life in which this could be true: Had her family dealt with invasive insects at home? Had she experienced the pain of bee stings and itch of mosquito bites? I wanted respectfully to acknowledge these sorts of experiences, yet I didn’t want them to become her only references for understanding and relating to the natural world. I said, “Sometimes, when bugs come into our houses, we have to kill them to keep ourselves healthy. And some bugs can bite us in painful ways. But sometimes we don’t have to worry so much about the bugs we find. I’m curious about these ants. Where do you suppose they come from?”
Natalie was quick to imagine the ants’ story: “The ants are in the hole talking. If they hear loud noises, they won’t come out. We have to be very quiet! If they see us, they stay in because they’re scared. When one ant wasn’t looking, I got him! I’m faster than them—that’s how I catch them.”
“What’s in the hole that the ants come from?” I asked.
“Maybe their family,” Natalie mused. I offered her a clipboard and a pen, and invited her to draw what she imagined was in the hole. She began to sketch, talking aloud as she worked: “They’re a family. They talk to each other and bring food to their baby. In the house, there’s food and a table and a bed and a seat.”
Natalie stopped drawing to look into her bucket: “There’s 15 ants in the bucket! That’s more than one family. That’s a lot of families. They share one house in the hole. The ants come not fast because they’re talking, saying their plan to come out to see what’s outside. They want to find their family that’s in the bucket. The ants in the bucket want to get out of the bucket and go to their family.”
Natalie abruptly dumped the bucket upside down next to the crack in the pavement, and tapped it on its bottom. “Go home, ants! Go to your home. Go to your family.”
When I invited Natalie to imagine the ants’ story it helped her see her bucket from the inside as well as from above, and shifted her relationships with the ants. She moved from a defensive posture to that of being a protector. Particularly for children living in places where the natural world is degraded or dangerous, imagining the stories of a place can inspire new possibilities; it casts children into an active role as people who care about and take action on behalf of a place.
Tell the Stories
We’re often encouraged to see the Earth as landscape, which is scenery—something to look at, but not to participate in. But when we collapse the distance between the land and ourselves and allow ourselves to become part of the story of a place, we give ourselves over to intimacy. This can be our work with young children—weaving them into the story of the place where they live.
One way I’ve begun trying to link the children to the land is by using observable markers anchored in place to measure our lives. “You’ll start kindergarten in the fall, when the blackberries are ripe.” “Christmas comes in the darkest part of winter, when the sun sets while we’re still at school, and the sun doesn’t rise until we’re back at school the next morning.”
And I’ve been playing a game with the children that I learned from Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, “The Sound of a Creature Not Stirring.” We listen for the sounds we don’t hear (a leaf changing color, an earthworm moving through the soil, blackberries ripening)—a way to focus our attention on the Earth around us and to participate in what’s happening in it.
A Foundation for Action
In The Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World, Kathleen Dean Moore writes, “Loving isn’t just a state of being, it’s a way of acting in the world. Love isn’t a sort of bliss, it’s a kind of work. . . . Obligation grows from love. It is the natural shape of caring.” She writes: “To love a person or a place is to take responsibility for its well-being.”
From love grows action. In my work with young children, I share stories of local environmental activists who have used their love of place to fuel their action. For example, I tell the story of a group of children and their families who launched a campaign to save the cedar tree at the school playground where we often play.
Children have loved the cedar tree at Coe School for a long time; children played at this tree even before you were born. One year, a mom was at a community meeting and learned that the city park department was planning to cut down the tree because it was damaging the asphalt on the playground with its big roots. She told the children in her daughter’s kindergarten class, and those children and their families decided that they had to work to protect the cedar tree and to help the park department find another way to fix the problem of broken asphalt. The children and their families wrote letters to the city workers, telling them about how much they loved the cedar tree, and sharing their ideas for taking good care of the tree and the pavement on the playground. They had a meeting with the city workers, who hadn’t known that the tree was important to the children. After the meeting, the city workers decided not to cut down the tree; they made a plan with the children and their families and the other kids at Coe School about how they could work together to fix the asphalt and take care of the tree.
I watch for opportunities for the children to add their own chapters to the story of activism on behalf of beloved places. I want them to see themselves as part of a community of people anchored by fierce and determined love of place and who take responsibility for its well-being.
The poet Mary Oliver instructs us on how to open the natural world to children: “Teach the children. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones—inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones—rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
And devotion is the beginning of action.
Ann Pelo is a teacher educator, program consultant, and author whose primary work focuses on reflective pedagogical practice, social justice and ecological teaching and learning, and the art of mentoring. She is the author of five books, including The Goodness of Rain: Developing an Ecological Identify in Young Children; Rethinking Early Childhood Education/ and The Language of Art: Inquiry-based Studio Practices in Early Childhood Settings.
This article is reprinted with permission from A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. Available from www.rethinkingschools.org.
“Mr. D., that was the best science class I’ve ever had!”
The trials and successes of a classroom without walls
By Greg Derbyshire
he above feedback, made by a grade 8 student, is one of many similar comments made to me by students and parents who recognize and appreciate the opportunities provided by outdoor experiential education. That’s why I took students outdoors when I was a classroom teacher. Not for the accolades or ego stroking, but for the knowledge that I reached many students in a way that can’t be done inside the walls of a classroom. Few of us need to be informed of screen-time statistics when it comes to our modern society. A growing body of research is supporting what many of us know inherently, and the long-term impacts of the loss of exposure to the natural world are mounting. We now know that connecting with the natural world benefits many aspects of our being. Physical, social, spiritual, and mental health improve when we spend more time outdoors. Bullying decreases, ADHD symptoms are reduced, and social and cultural barriers diminish. For many of us, we know that we have an obligation as teachers to expose our students to the outdoors; it may be the only opportunity many of them get.
The last class of my indoor teaching career was one of the nicest groups of grade 7 and 8s I’d had the pleasure of working with. They were energetic, creative, and enthusiastic. They weren’t, however, good listeners. During the first couple of weeks of September, I tried to help them develop better listening skills.
The usual strategies didn’t work; being late for gym class bothered them, but didn’t change their attentiveness.
With some trepidation then, I prepared them for a study of our schoolyard and the adjacent vacant land. The grade 7’s would investigate biodiversity for the Interactions in the Environment science unit and the grade 8’s would review the above, plus collect plant and water specimens for investigation with microscopes for the Cells unit.
Prior to going outdoors, we reviewed the expectations. Each small group would carry a clipboard, worksheets, scrap paper, pencils, measuring tapes or metre sticks and numerous zip-lock bags for collecting samples. Members of each group were to stay together and work together, solving problems on their own if possible.
I knew this class might be a bit challenging in an outdoor setting because of the struggles we’d had with listening skills in the classroom. But it was much worse than expected. Groups split up, metre sticks were used as swords, pencils got lost, and worksheets didn’t get filled out properly. And, that was just in the schoolyard! With thirty years as a classroom teacher under my belt, and with considerable experience at outdoor education centres, leadership centres and summer camps over the previous thirty-five years, I had no idea a group could be so frustrating. Despite the schoolyard behaviour, we moved to the adjacent vacant land and continued our study. When we finished our work and lined up at the school door to go back inside, I shared with them my dismay at their blatant disrespect for their peers, for me, and for the learning opportunity, which they had just spoiled. I told them that I had never had such a challenging group in all my years teaching outdoors, and that my experience that day was much like trying to herd cats. They knew Iwas upset, so they followed my instructions to return to class, sit down,open their reading books and remain silent.
I sat down at my desk to plan my lecture on respect and listening skills. After fifteen minutes, I asked for their attention.
Instead of my lecture though, I instinctively asked them to share what was good and what wasn’t so good about their outdoor learning experience. A few students offered the correct observations about poor listening skills and a general lack of following instructions. A couple of students suggested that the hands-on learning was a lot of fun. Then, the comment I’ll never forget: “Mr. D. – that was the best science class I’ve ever had!”
I paused. It was obvious that many other students felt the same. “Why then,” I asked, “were you so out of control out there?” It took some time, but some students shared that they seldom, if ever, went outdoors for anything but recess and gym class. They just couldn’t control themselves with the perceived freedom; it was too much like recess, despite having clipboards and worksheets in hand.
Even with this frustrating outing, the learning that followed was substantial. We spent many quality hours preparing plants for pressing, identifying species, mapping study plots with species variety, comparing schoolyard plots with vacant land plots, preparing slides for looking at samples through microscopes, identifying microscopic invertebrates, and preparing reports for presentation. Just one afternoon of outdoor learning provided plenty of extended learning opportunities in the classroom, and set up anticipation for future forays into outdoor experiential education.
In fact, the outdoors became our classroom without walls. Students began to ask if we could go outside to learn. We did. Over the course of the year, we left the classroom for language, math, history, geography, science, physical and health education, and the arts. The outdoors became a natural place to learn. And they became better learners as a result.
Benefits, Barriers, Basics and Beyond
As suggested above, there are dozens of benefits to outdoor experiential education. Students get more exercise, they socialize more, co-operate more and learn more.
They are exposed to new venues for learning where staff can share their expertise. Some students, who might find desk learning a bit of a struggle, shine in the outdoors; they often take leadership roles in groups – something they would not normally do inside. In my experience, students become motivated to work well together so that they don’t lose their outdoor learning opportunities.
The different venues open up different ways of learning. Most will know of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, (Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,1993).
There are now nine recognized intelligences: logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and existential. I am convinced that outdoor experiential education can support and enhance all nine intelligences.
Recently in education, differentiated instructionhas been touted as the way to reach more of our students. Take them outside, then! Some will thrive. Some will be challenged. All should benefit in their own ways.
There are, however, a few barriers to taking classes out regularly. A single permission form for a year of local outdoor excursions may not be allowed at some schools. On the other hand, many schools and boards are moving toward being “paperless,” so trip-specific permission forms could easily be completed electronically. Depending on administration, specific school and classroom compositions, the availability of volunteers may be a barrier. None are typically needed if you are staying on school property, and possibly if you are going “next door.” Other outdoor resources within walking distances would require volunteers. Individual schools and boards will have their specific requirements.
As is suggested by my “herding cats”experience, individual class dynamics will impact on the quantity and quality of outdoor experiences. Teachers must recognize the uniqueness of each class and the individuals within it, and plan accordingly. The reality is, some classes may not be able to get out as often as others. Regardless, the benefits of outdoor excursions will be palpable.Whether you’re a novice outdoor educator who needs support, or the experienced teacher who can provide that support, there are a few basics to keep in mind. The list below is a starting point. Adjust it as you see fit for each activity to suit your specific needs. The more experience you get at this, the easier it is.
- Get to know your local resources, (schoolyard, woodlots, vacant land, urban studies opportunities, talented parents or other adults in the community who might be able to help you with specific aspects of outdoor learning).
- Get to know your board and school policies and procedures for outdoor excursions; complete any required paperwork. Perhaps a generic permission form for occasional excursions close to school would suffice for those outdoor teaching opportunities that present themselves throughout the year.
- Arrange for volunteers, if needed.
- Know your students; what are their strengths and limitations?
- Plan the activity for your chosen curriculum area and topic, and gather materials and supplies.
- Carry out that plan; take those kids outside!
- Debrief the students to find out what they liked and didn’t like, and what they understood and didn’t understand. This feedback will prove very useful for future outings.
- Do follow-up activities to solidify learning.
Beyond the basics, here are some ideas for developing a network of outdoor educators within your school and district.
- Consult with colleagues to learn the basics.
- Share your ideas and experiences at regular meetings.
- Create outdoor activity resource documents specific to your schoolyard and local resources, (saved on your school’s server, of course). All teachers can contribute to it.
- Combine classes for some of your excursions. This is one way to team up experienced and inexperienced teachers, and more appropriate student groupings may be easier to arrange.
- Be an advocate for outdoor experiential education whenever you can.
So, why bother?
From my years of experience in the outdoor education and recreation sectors, I’ve seen what a difference going outdoors can make. Beyond all the wonderful benefits stated in research, there’s something that happens to children when they spend time outdoors. Their eyes soften. They begin to see the world in a different way. They’re more centred and at peace. They discover a part of themselves they didn’t previously know. What more could you want for your students?The bottom line is, if you don’t make the small effort to take your kids outside, who will?
Greg Derbyshire is a recently retired classroom teacher with the Grand Erie District School Board in Ontario, Canada. His many and varied outdoor interests and pursuits continue to occupy much of his time. More recently, his interest in promoting the benefits of outdoor experiential education has inspired the creation of a new venture, It All Comes Naturally.
This article first appeared in Stepping Into Nature, a publication of The Back to Nature Network, a multisectoral coalition oforganizations and agencies working to connect children and families with nature. The Network was established with the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation through a collaborative partnership between Royal Botanical Gardens, Parks and Recreation Ontario and Ontario Nature.
Wolverines, Wonder and Wilderness
Why the Wolverine Matters to a Kid Who Has Never Seen a Raccoon
by Megan McGinty
IT IS APRIL AND I AM SITTING UNCOMFORTABLY on the cobbles of a gravel bar on the Skagit River in the North Cascades National Park with a group of local fifth graders, talking about the special rocks we just found. Ranger Paula arrives and greets us, asking the kids about their day and if they’ve seen any wildlife on their hike this afternoon. Excited, they all talk at once, clamoring to describe the chipmunk that ran across the trail and the robin they tried to take pictures of as it flew into the canopy. Paula begins to talk about the wildlife research being conducted in the park by scientists and asks the children “What animal would you most like to see while you are here?”
At this last, my answer, the kids all turn and stare at me quizzically. Paula laughs and explains to the kids what a wolverine is and that they require a large amount of wilderness for their habitat. “How do you know they exist?” one asks. “Good question.” replies Paula.
For many of the kids, these two nights in a paved campground, using a bathroom with flush toilets and running water, eating out of a group kitchen with a gas stove and a refrigerator (albeit at picnic tables under a roof with only two walls), will be the most rugged outdoor recreation experience they ever have. For nearly all of them, the most pressing environmental issues they will come to terms with will be economic, as the area’s historically resource extraction-based industries dwindle. There is less land, less water, fewer trees and not enough fish available for these kids to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. Some of the students are already coping with the effects of illnesses caused by exposure to pesticides, industrial pollutants, lead in their drinking water and a myriad of other difficulties resulting from low-income residency. Given the realities of daily existence for some of these students, the fact that they are living within two hourís drive of one of largest areas of wildernesses within the contiguous United States is of little importance to them. Or is it?
Wilderness has long held a role in Judeo-Christian culture; its effects are still felt each year as millions of devout practitioners observe Lent. A significant portion of modern American culture still grapples with the issues raised by wilderness, from literary classics such as”The Call of the Wild” to the hit TV show “Survivor”. Many aborigine cultures used wildlands as the foundational setting for rites of passage and seeking insight. As we began to define ourselves as human and civilized, we also needed to label that which we were distinguishing ourselves from. It seems that as soon as man began to exist, so did wilderness.
Environmental education first came about as a movement when conservationists and educators recognized the effects of an increasing disconnect between society and the natural world. The need to rekindle that connection inspired efforts to get kids out into the woods, to take them out into the wild, because that’s where “real” nature was. It was assumed that a big part of the reason for the growing alienation from nature was due to the fact that there was no nature worthy of inspiring a connection in the cities and suburbs we live in. As school budgets tightened, the likelihood of such field trips and opportunities became scarce. At the same time, many thinkers began exploring the connections made to the natural world during childhood and realized that for many kids, it happened in the more common places such as vacant lots or backyards, places that they were allowed to have daily contact with. Educators began to wonder if the connections being made had less to do with the “wow” factor than with intimacy and immediate relevance.
Recent trends in environmental education have rendered the phrase ìplace-based-educationî a hot term, and rightly so. More curricula are available that allow the local schoolyard or drainage ditch to be a laboratory for ecological study. Innovative teachers have devised lessons that allow even the most urban settings to serve as the source for environmental theory. Students living in heavily-impacted areas are now more likely to be exposed the concepts behind environmental justice than to a canned curriculum about the Brazilian rainforest. By bringing a concrete (literally) relevance to the students’ daily lives, environmental education is being brought closer into the fold as a valid academic discipline.
The problem is this: wonder thrives on apparent irrelevance. I think of my friend Diego, born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the South Bronx. When he was fifteen, he went to a wilderness program in the Appalachians for students from the South Bronx High School who spoke English as a second language.
Incredibly out of place in an alien land and culture, he fell in love with climbing and returned to the program as an intern and later as a staff member. He now spends his free time in alpine wildernesses and climbs in some of the most remote parts of North America.
In this more recent vein of locally-focused programs, many kids are not introduced to the large chunks of land and water that are todayís wildernesses. This is often done with the assumption that this is best for them. Every educator is charged with the task of assigning importance to some lessons over others. The best educators begin with assessing what their students already know and where they are coming from.
There are many students with a wide range of experiences, so a sort of middle ground is aimed for, that is, the lessons are designed for the greatest commonalities among the students and the experiences they are most likely to already have. To be sure, Diego is an anomaly, but he is also an example of a student that flourished by getting a chance to see the wide world beyond his backyard.
It can easily be argued that a wilderness area isn’t needed to teach a group of fifth graders what watershed they live in or where their food comes from. A significant number of environmental education programs never reach a point where wilderness issues become pertinent and of those that do, there is rarely room in the curriculum for the issue. However, an educational program that is not prepared to address the question of wilderness is limited in its ability to handle the larger philosophical questions that environmental education tends to beg. (Should we preserve lands? Which ones? Why? What is ‘preservation’?, etc.) Even though the instructors often have to work with constraints such as lesson time, program length, or student background, they need a solid fundamental philosophy from which to base their lessons in order to effectively grapple with the more abstract aspects, the “big questions” of environmental education.
As we make lessons more real and connect them more intimately to students’ daily lives, we must not forget the importance of the great unknown. Appealing to the sense of wonder, to the promise of discovery, is of essential importance when convincing future generations to become active conservationists. When we introduce schoolchildren to the mysteries of their backyards, we cannot answer every question, nor should we try to. If they receive the message that all the answers have been found, that everything is under control and fully explained, there will be no reason for them to continue discovering and questioning.
By presenting the backyard as what it is, a test case, a fraction, a tightly bound series of parameters that can only serve as the roughest of sketches for the great ecological mysteries of the wildlands, we are giving them the most honest of lessons. No longer are they schoolchildren on an outing following a curriculum designed to lead them towards a predetermined outcome. They have been initiated as citizens of the planet who will play a role in shaping its future. How these kids will feel about their role in the environment can be decided by whether or not they know or don’t know that there are places on the planet where human impact is not yet a primary shaping factor.
Environmental issues cannot be conveniently contained with the boundaries of a city, state or even a country. Instead, they ignore the abstract divisions we have attempted to draw and reinforce the interdependence of ecosystems on both big and small levels. We need clean air, clean water and healthy soil, and preserving the areas that are still reservoirs of these things is as important as cleaning up the areas that are dangerously contaminated. Letting kids think that recycling and picking up litter will be sufficient to address the current and pending environmental issues is not far from lying to them.
The value of something beyond that which we know and see in our daily lives is of absolute importance when trying to convince people to work towards a goal that does not have immediate or tangible results. Kids need to be encouraged and to believe their efforts will have results, but we should not deceive them about the magnitude or pace of environmental progress. They will need inspiration for the work that lies ahead, be it in the form of a magnificent photo in National Geographic, a video of an amazing rainforest or tales of strange and fantastic creatures that live in remote wildlands.
When I was young, before I could read very well, one of my favorite books was a Dr. Seuss volume titled “McElligot’s Pool”. The story is simple: a farmer is teasing a boy named Marco who is fishing in McElligot’s Pool, a small pool in the middle of a cow pasture that people throw junk into. He thinks Marco will catch nothing but an old shoe. Marco concedes that the farmer may be right, but wonders if the pool could be connected to an underground river that flows to the sea. He imagines the progression of the secret river that connects the puddle to the great sea and the increasingly more bizzare creatures that live there. As a kid, I was absolutely captivated by the idea that the mundane things in my backyard could be connected to bigger, more exotic things that lay far beyond. Suddenly, pretending to be exploring the Amazon while catching and identifying spiders in the vacant lot next to my friend’s house did not seem quite so farfetched. In fact, it made the spider-hunting seem less like playing and more like training for someday exploring the great unknowns that still remain in the wildlands.
Megan McGinty lives in Bellingham, WA and is an Environmental Educator with North Cascades Institute. Photo by Benjamin Drummond.