Empathy and Environmental Education

Empathy and Environmental Education

The Compassionate Educator:
Empathy and Environmental Education

Tom Stonehocker

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.

Beyond Egocentrism

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.

Being There

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.

Transformative Power

Transformative Power


From Chattermarks

The Transformative Power of Wilderness Education

A graduate student finds an understanding of the effect of wilderness on the development of young people’s sense of self-worth

by Rory Crowley
On July 7th, 2001 I lie huddled in my sleeping bag, shivering as I survey the cloud of water vapor that floats above my head. It’s 2:00 am and sleep is distant; I realize that I am unprepared for my first solo backpack. I’ve brought a waif of a summer sleeping bag into the high-country, and as snow covers my lonely two-man tent and the ground steals away the heat, I shiver. The Nalgene bottle under my knees is cold; I pull it out, undo the top and gulp the cool water. I open the tent door and pour the rest of the water into my camp stove. I am boiling water for the fourth time tonight; I watch the blue flame in anticipation. I need a warm water bottle under my knees to keep the night bearable.

“What am I doing here?” I say to myself, echoing what I’ve been thinking all night. I have come to Cathedral Provincial Park to test myself but I have also come in search of wildness, to find something that a city cannot supply. I just don’t know what I seek.

The simplicity of wilderness travel attracted me to strap on the hiking boots for that solo and embark on a career in environmental education. Carrying everything I need to survive a week, and leaving behind the overabundance of technology and distraction. Wilderness travel requires simplicity because of the load limits of the human body. Furthermore, wilderness travel resigns the distractions of the modern world to the subconscious. Gary Snyder eloquently warns people who seek the wild that

“Wilderness can be a ferocious teacher, rapidly stripping down the inexperienced or the careless. It is easy to make a mistake that will bring one to an extremity. Practically speaking, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.” (Snyder 1990, 23).

During my first solo I was searching for my self-definition as an adult. Self-definition — ”defining, or interpreting ourselves to others, so that people in our social environment have a clearer understanding of who we are”— is a constant evaluation to see if our actions reflect our values (Williams et al. 1989, 170). I wanted to exhibit the “Mountain Man” persona as a symbol of my personal values. But there is also a cultural aspect; this self-image is desirable because the natural wonders of the wilderness are symbols spiritually and aesthetically unique to my Euro American culture. I came to Cathedral Provincial Park with a very anthropogenic goal. Unfortunately, like me at twenty-one, many “weekend warriors” do not go beyond the personal benefits of wilderness — views, peaks, the workout — disregarding their interconnections to the natural world. Learning is facilitated in wilderness when “the learning is necessary to solve basic problems of comfort and even survival” (Miles, 1987, 7). However, wilderness education needs to be sure to go “beyond the simple act of holding classes in the great outdoors” and embrace the experience and personal growth possibilities (Grumbine, 1999, 125).



Much of my summer (2004) was spent in the backcountry in North Cascades National Park. I was at the halfway point of a graduate program jointly administered by Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute. The Master’s of environmental education is centered on place-based education, leadership and non-profit administration gave me the opportunity to teach in the backcountry while fulfilling course requirements.

During a 6-night canoe camp, my co-leader and I took a group of participants, aged 14-16, up a difficult hike to the top of Desolation Peak and a fire lookout. Rob, the oldest and most experienced participant who had attended two previous camps, set out to try and summit Desolation, a peak that his earlier instructors had never attempted with their groups. After ten minutes of strenuous hiking Rob sat down for a drink of water. Gasping he said, “I am never hiking that fast again, it sucked.” At this point I thought to myself, “okay, I guess we won’t make it to the top, but we’ll make a day hike out of it.” I was wrong. As the group quickly started leaving Rob behind, I sent Rob’s best friend in the camp, Stan, back to hike with him. Stan talked Rob all the way to the top, reaching the lookout just thirty minutes after the rest of the group. The weary hikers were greeted by a fire raging in the distance, the lookout making her daily observations, a helicopter flying through the smoke, and the ghost of past lookouts.

desolation-tom-gotchy-1-of-1-620x264About a month after the trip I received an e-mail from Rob’s father. Rob was doing really great in alternative school this year, especially in English class. Our lessons during the hike had centered on Jack Kerouac, who spent the summer of 1956 as Desolations Peak’s fire lookout. Our lessons, combined with the accomplishment of reaching the summit had convinced Rob to read both Desolation Angels and Dharma Bums. Most importantly, he had started writing. Although Rob said he hated hiking at the time, I am happy to hear that after some reflection he has incorporated some positives from the day into his daily life.

Rob was receptive to coming to the wilderness and striving towards self-improvement. His actions exemplified this commitment. The wilderness of Ross Lake differs from Rob’s daily hectic life in urban America. Contrast and attunement during time in the wilderness humbled and empowered Rob.

With increased visitation to wilderness areas as population grows, stress on our protected areas increases. As a result, programs that do not depend on the pristine wilderness should take place elsewhere. But if the program depends on the healing and restorative powers of wilderness the activity will be inferior elsewhere. In my opinion, Rob likely would not have received the same personal benefits if the canoe camp was on a local lake and the hike was on a less significant peak near his home.

During the summer of 2004 I also began to explore what it means to be a mentor and a facilitator. I tried to make the experiences I led as valuable as possible, exposing youth to wilderness’s restorative capabilities, while modeling positive behavior in the backcountry. Although a recent resident of the North Cascades, I have further sought to exhibit the qualities Barry Lopez suggests in his essay “American Geographies,”

It resides with men and women more or less sworn to a place, who abide there, who have a feel for the soil and history, for the turn of the leaves and night sounds. Often they are glad to take the outlanders in tow… they are nearly flawless in the respect for these places they love. Their knowledge is intimate rather than encyclopedic, human but not necessarily scholarly, it rings with concrete detail of experience. (Lopez, 1998, 132-133).

It was in this vein that I set out on successive hikes up Sourdough Mountain with participants from the Washington Conservation Corps.

“What are you doing Cait?” I yelled as I looked back to see Cait walking backwards down the trail. Cait, a member of the Washington Conservation Corps, was close to finishing a long day-hike to Sourdough Mountain lookout which included a talk with Northwest poet and fire lookout Tim McNulty.

“It feels like needles are poking into my toes! Like a thousand needles!” she shouted over her shoulder as she limped down the trail to catch up with the waiting group. “My stupid boots are cutting into my toes. Walking backwards makes it feel better.”

“What’s wrong? Do you want me to check for blisters?” I probed. We were still at least an hour from the trailhead.

“No, let’s just get down,” she said, tears swelling in her red eyes. “How long until we get down?”

“Ah… thirty-forty minutes…if you walk facing forward” I fibbed. We continued down the trail from Sourdough, one of the steepest and hardest hikes in North Cascades National Park, but also one of the most rewarding. From the fire lookout you can see six different river drainages; Ross, Ruby, Thunder, Stetattle, Big Beaver and the lower Skagit. We had an amazing day in the high country: blue skies, mountain flowers, views, poetry and writing advice. An hour and a half later we reached the vehicles and Cait immediately stripped off her dust-covered boots. Her toes were red, raw and inflamed but with no noticeable blisters. Her boots must really be terrible. Now in sandals, Cait soothed her toes in the cool river before we got into the trucks to go back to camp. Her feet will be fine tomorrow.

Back at camp I noticed that Cait was not at dinner. After climbing over 5,000 feet in five miles I expected everyone to be devouring their food. I tracked her down walking back from a payphone, her eyes red and swollen. She had phoned her boyfriend because she could not wait to tell her partner about her amazing day; so amazing she could not wait another minute to share it with him. As an aspiring writer, Cait met one of her idols and it has had a profound impact on her. It was at that point that I realized I had facilitated a day that Cait would remember for a long time. Cait’s amazing day can be summarized as experiential wilderness education.

Cait saw the hike up Sourdough was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Author Tim McNulty was in the lookout crafting his work. While at the lookout she observed his everyday tasks of a lookout. Cait understood the purpose of a writer spending time in seclusion and wilderness. Tim gave her advice of different techniques to make her writing better.

Since our hike Cait has had the opportunity to independently write and apply what she had learned. In a chance meeting she indicated her writing had never been better and that the advise from Sourdough was very helpful.

Cait and Rob exemplify the amazing metaphoric benefits to wilderness education. They have been able to apply the positives from the wilderness to their everyday lives. My time as wilderness educator has also been metaphoric for me as a leader. I knew wilderness could impact someone in a positive way, but I needed to actually witness a transformative experience to fully believe in the benefits of wilderness education.

Learning and teaching during my time working with North Cascades Institute causes me to reflect on my time huddled in my cold sleeping bag in the Wilderness of Cathedral Provincial Park. I was grasping for a connection to nature. The myth of the “Mountain Man” brought me to the wilderness, but the effect has been something deeper. For me wilderness has become a metaphor of a deeper connection to the land, a source of inspiration and, most importantly, a positive influence on me as a member of society, a citizen and a resident of the earth.


Grumbine, E.R., “Going to Basho’s Pine” ISLE, 6(2), 1990.

Krumpe, E.E., “Managing Wilderness for Education and Development.” Preparing to Manage Wilderness in the 21st Century, U.S. Forest Service, 1990.

Lopez, B.H., “The American Geographies” Barry Lopez: About This Life, Toronto: Random House, 1998.

Miles, J.C., “Wilderness as a Learning Place.” The Journal of Environmental Education, 18(2), 1986-1987.

Miles, J.C., “Wilderness as Healing Place.” The Journal of Experiential Education, 10(3), 1987.

Snyder, G., “The Etiquette of Freedom.” The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North point Press, 1990

Spray, R.H. & Weingert, P.D., “The Wilderness Environment: Training Wilderness Managers.” Wilderness Benchmark 1988, U,S, Forest Service, 1989.

Williams, D.R. et. al., “The Role of Wilderness in Human Development.” Wilderness Benchmark 1988, U.S. Forest Service, 1989.

Rory Crowley was a Graduate Student with Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University and the North Cascades Institute. Funding was provided by the Skagit Environment Endowment Fund who support conservation, stewardship and education in an around the Washington and British Columbia’s Skagit Watershed.


4-H Urban-Rural Exchange

4-H Urban-Rural Exchange


By being on the land and walking in the shoes of their host families, students begin to understand more deeply how and why Oregonians manage the land the way they do.

By Maureen Hosty
With contributions from Gary Delaney, Deb Schreiber, John Williams, Jed Smith and Shana Withee

OSruralB_0164regon is a state of great socioeconomic and geographic diversity. While this diversity brings strength, it also challenges Oregonians to meet the needs of all communities. This divide is mostly deeply felt around natural resource management issues. Oregon cities are now so culturally isolated from the country that clashes between urban and rural Oregon occur frequently when it comes to grazing, logging, wilderness and wildlife. That was the world Portland urban youth walked into when they took a stand in defense of wolves in 2005 at a public Fish and Wildlife hearing. Ranchers howled in protest. Yet, just as it seemed Oregon’s urban-rural divide had grown into an unbridgeable chasm this conflict ended when 4-H stepped in. 4-H staff from urban and rural Oregon along with a handful of ranchers from rural Grant County did the unexpected. They invited kids from urban Portland middle school to live and work along side them and see a rancher or farmers side of life.

Today the 4-H Urban-Rural Exchange involves youth as a catalyst for change for a sustainable Oregon future by providing a venue for rural and urban youth and families to share their stories, their lifestyles, their beliefs and their practices for managing the land for the next generation. Through this program, urban youth and their adult chaperons travel to rural Eastern Oregon to live and work alongside 4-H ranch and farm host families for 6 days. Likewise, rural youth travel to Portland with adult chaperons to live and work alongside their 4-H urban host family.

rural_0202The program provides youth who are too often exposed to viewpoints on one side of an issue, a first hand experience on the land. It is this experience of being on the land and walking in the shoes of their host family that youth can begin to understand more deeply how and why Oregonians manage the land the way they do.

Through the process of developing this program 4-H Faculty quickly learned that a key to helping youth understand the the natural resource issues as well as the sustainability and resiliency of their host community, youth first need some knowledge about the dynamics of the influential social, environmental, and economic systems that underlie them. Thus, while the program began as a response to the issue of the reintroduction of wolves in Oregon, in the end the program is designed to help youth understand the broader social, cultural and economic issues within rural and urban Oregon and the interdependence between both sides of the state.

During their stay with their host family youth participate in daily chores in caring for the land with their host family. More importantly though, youth are involved in all aspects of community life of their host family. The attend school for a day, participate in community events, shop at the local store, attend a local sports game, meet local neighbors and sometimes attend church to name a few of the activities.

Program Design

Participant Selection Process

IMG_1535.JPGApproximately 40-50 youth are selected to participate in this exchange each year. Youth selected to participate in this program must submit a 4-H program application and get approval from their school administrator and principal. Teachers and 4-H staff screen youth applications. Youth are selected for their commitment and openness to learn and their potential for serving as an ambassador for their community. Participating youth must also commit to giving a presentation back home about what they learned during their 6-day exchange. Once they are selected youth are paired with another student of the same gender and then matched with a host family. All youth are expected to write a letter of introduction to their host family.

Likewise, 8-10 adult chaperons are also selected to participate in this program. All adult chaperons must complete the OSU Extension 4-H Leader screening process and undergo a criminal background clearance. Chaperons are recruited and selected from teachers, parents and community partners.

Host families for this program are recruited from current 4-H and OSU Extension families. All adults in the host family must complete a background information application and participate in a host family site visit by the 4-H Extension faculty. Host families are selected for their ability to provide a meaningful experience for their visiting youth or adult chaperons.


Prior to loading in the vans and heading across the mountains to their host family, all youth and adult participants in the program must first complete a series of 4-H educational programs designed to prepare them for their experience. A 30-minute introductory program is provided at the beginning for the school year to introduce all potential students to the program and explain the application process. A series of 2-3 follow up educational sessions are held over the next several months. These educational sessions focus on the social, cultural and environmental issues of their host communities; cross-cultural communication and understanding; and sustainable urban and rural agriculture.

A mandatory one-hour orientation is held for all participating chaperons, youth and their parents. Participating chaperons also participate in additional training related to the roles and responsibilities of being a chaperon.

During the Exchange

rural_0083Four six-day exchanges from urban to rural Oregon take place the same week in April. Urban 4H youth travel to multiple communities in Harney County, Grant County, Wallowa County and Klamath County. A few weeks later, youth from rural Oregon travel to urban Portland for a 5-day exchange.

Traveling to their host community takes several hours and generally includes brief stops at historical and/or natural landmarks within the state. A lunch stop is held at a local 4-H Extension office along the route.

Once youth and their chaperons arrive at their host county 4-H office, the program begins with a potluck dinner with all the host families and visiting youth and chaperons. The potluck is designed to give youth and chaperons the opportunity to meet their host families, participate in icebreaker activities, and learn about the guidelines and expectations for the week.

During their stay with their rural host family Portland youth work alongside ranchers and farmers from rural eastern Oregon to learn the joys and challenges that comes with real rural life. Some activities include: caring and feeding livestock, vaccinating animals, branding cattle, chopping wood, and cleaning barns. Urban youth learn that ranching and farming is a 24-hour around the clock profession and caring for their livestock involves even checking on their livestock at 2 am. Urban youth also attend a school for the day in their rural community host school. In some cases urban youth who are use to attending school with 500+ students in three grades are surprised to find some rural schools with less than 100 students in 12 grades.

SruralB_0202Likewise, rural middle school youth visit Portland to learn about the joys and challenges of urban life. Rural youth live and work alongside urban families and explore issues relevant to Portland such as transportation, greenspaces preservation, urban agriculture and water management. Rural youth learn how to use public transportation, visit a farmers market and/or community gardens, tour a waste treatment plant , or visit a recycling center. They also attend school for a day. Unlike back home in their community, rural youth visiting urban Portland walk to school or ride their bike. In some cases rural youth learn that urban students get to school by public transportation.

On the sixth and final day of the exchange, visiting youth and chaperons and their host families return to the local 4-H Extension office to participate in a debriefing activity and to say final goodbyes.

Post Program

Once youth return from their experience living with a host family across the urban-rural divide, the program does not stop. Participating youth are divided into teams of 3-4 youth. Each team is expected to prepare and deliver a 15-20 minute presentation to the rest of their school about what they learned during the exchange.

More important, however, many youth continue their education beyond the 4-H program. Over 1/3 of the youth who have particpated in this program reported that they went back to visit their host family in the summer and took their own family with them. Several families in one Portland community also began a beef cooperative with their 4-H host ranch family.

rural_1098-1Program Impacts

Outcome evaluations indicated significant changes in attitude, knowledge and understanding of socioeconomic and environmental issues from both sides of the divide. A four year evaluation found changes in knowledge and attitudes among both urban and rural participants. 119 urban participants and 43 rural host family members participated in the study.

Urban participants reported significant changes in attitudes in:

1) Knowing about the lifestyles, beliefs and ways of living of rural Oregonians; 2) Understanding the beliefs and practices for managing the land by rural Oregonians; 3) Understanding how the actions of urban Oregonians impact rural Oregon natural resource management; 4) Their awareness of rural Oregon stereotypes; 5) Knowing the commonalities urban and rural Oregonians have in managing their land; 6) Their belief that ranchers have a respect and understanding of how to best manage their land.

Rural participants reported significant changes as well in:

1) Knowing about the lifestyles, beliefs and ways of urban youth; 2) Their belief that most urban Oregonians are open to hearing all sides of natural resource issues; 3) Their awareness of urban Oregon stereotypes; 4) Their belief that urban Oregonians have a respect and understanding of how to best manage urban natural resources.

IMG_1022.JPGToday, over 600 youth and family members have participated in this program since it began in 2006. Many of these 600 Oregonians will likely spend the rest of their lives living and working in their same respective part of the state. They might never step foot on the other side of divide. But from this day forward, they will have a different idea about the kind of people they share the state with and how they are managing their natural resources. And when that time comes when another issue around the managementt of our natural resources divides this state, these 4H youth, 4-H leaders and 4-H host families will have someone they know and trust that they can reach out to and get their input and insights on the issue.

To learn more about this program, the program sponsors and partners, or how to become involved, please contact us:

Maureen Hosty, 4-H Youth Development, Metro 4-H
Phone: 971-361-9628
E-mail: Maureen.hosty@oregonstate.edu
Website: www.4hwildlifestewards.org






Since the program began in 2006, there have been a total of 34 Exchanges between urban and rural Oregon. Three hundred and eight urban youth youth and 74 urban adult chaperons have traveled across  Oregon to live and work alongside 130 rural families (a total of 434 Rural Oregonians). The program has since expanded from 4 counties to 8 counties: Multnomah, Grant, Klamath, Wallawa, Harney, Wheeler, Gilliam and Morrow. 4-H Faculty and staff are busy preparing for the 2016 Exchanges which will take place March 31-April 5th. Participants in the exchange will be recruited from 4-H Youth and Adults from 4-H Clubs and 4-H Partner Schools. For more information about this program please contact: Maureen Hosty OSU Extension Faculty Portland Metro Area 4-H 3880 SE 8th Ave #170 Portland, OR 97202 PH 971-361-9628 | cell 503-360-6060 | fax -971-361-9628 maureen.hosty@oregonstate.edu

All Photos: Lynn Ketchum





A While in the Wild: Educating for Environmental Empathy

A While in the Wild: Educating for Environmental Empathy

Womens couleeA While in the Wild: Educating for Environmental Empathy

Experiences in wild nature, the leadership of a significant adult, and the educational support of the classroom offer powerful tools in shaping students toward lifelong leadership in environmental stewardship.


by Fay Mascher M.Ed., Cayley School
Jonas Cox Ph.D., Gonzaga University
Charles Salina Ph.D., Gonzaga University

On a visit to the coulee, a startled owl exploded off of a nest that we thought was empty. On the bus ride back to school, one boy reached for my hand, “Feel my heart,” he said. “It’s still going really fast.” –from the Cayley School action research project

Since the 1980’s, researchers in environmental education have explored this basic question: Why do some people care about the natural environment enough to protect it, while others do not? Current environmental education, taught as a unit of instruction within the science curriculum, tends to assume that imparting information about the environment will inspire students to care for it. But a generation of young people educated in this way has not yielded a generation of adults committed to caring for the natural world.

The people of Cayley School, situated in a rural hamlet about one hour south Calgary, Alberta, struggled with a similar dynamic. In the spring of 2005, the teachers, parents, community members, and students of this small school (150 students in kindergarten through eighth grade) met with the Stewardship Centre of Canada to explore what their school could do to foster care of the natural environment.

The Youth Environmental Stewardship Program (YES) was born, sparking much activity at Cayley School. The school maintains ten photovoltaic units and a small wind turbine to provide three kilowatts of power to the grid. Students and staff participate in a thorough recycling program. An environment club meets weekly. Classroom instruction pursues cross-curricular inquiry into many environmental issues. Recognized in the media, and given multiple awards for environmental projects, Cayley School has laid strong ground work for meeting the goals of the YES project.

However, in a meeting of YES stakeholders in the fall of 2007, consensus emerged that the specific vision of the program—shaping students toward lifelong leadership in environmental stewardship—was not being realized. Students did not display a general ethic of stewardship, nor were they eager to fill leadership roles in the YES program .

Thorough environmental instruction combined with exciting school-wide environmental projects had failed to translate into genuine environmental stewardship. Why? There it was again, that thirty-year-old question: Why do some people care about the natural environment enough to protect it, and others do not?

Where does environmental stewardship come from?

Researchers in the field of environmental education have approached that question in a variety of ways. Tanner read the biographies of conservationists looking for patterns in their early experiences that might explain their lifelong care of the environment. In these biographies, and in a subsequent survey, he discovered that conservationists consistently report having spent a significant amount of time as children in wild or semi-wild places.

Subsequent studies had similar findings: time spent in wild or “domesticated” nature correlates significantly with subsequent environmentally responsible behavior. Wells and Lekies investigated the optimal age for these experiences and concluded that, “participation with ‘wild’ nature before age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood” .

AwhileQuote1Many of these studies discovered that when these nature experiences are shared with an important adult–a family member or a teacher—positive environmental behaviors are strengthened. During shared experiences in nature, a child becomes aware of the environment by attending to the bird, leaf, or rock that has captured the attention of the adult companion. Chawla calls this the power of joint attention. The child turns his or her attention to things pointed out by an adult, and then begins to do the same, pointing at things and calling out their names. An adult noticing nature helps a child take the first steps toward becoming environmentally aware.

Shared adult/child experiences in wild nature moves a child into a process by which stewardship behavior develops. The stages of that development can be compared to the evolution of a loving relationship between two people. In both cases there is a five step process: awareness, knowledge gathering, coming to appreciate, coming to love, and acting to protect.

Once the child has become aware of the natural environment, through the power of joint attention, she begins to gain knowledge about nature by interacting with it, by experimenting first-hand. The theory of ecological psychology describes how the natural world provides opportunities for interactive learning.   For example, a low tree branch allows a child to climb; rough ground affords the opportunity to establish balance. Nature offers a rich environment for these interactions, and provides immediate and often powerful feedback to all of the senses. Free play in nature, then, begins a relationship between the child and the natural world.

First a child is exposed to nature, then, he spends times interacting with it. Now he is ready for the knowledge building activities he finds in environmental education curricula in the schools. Students learn facts about the local environment from books and teachers. The more this learning serves to directly explain, support, and deepen the students’ hands-on outdoor experiences, the more meaningful it is.

In the grassThe more children learn about a place the more they appreciate it.   Going forward, they maintain interest in it and show simple, environmentally responsible behavior when they are there. Lindemann and Matthies found that the more plants and animals children could identify in the field, the more appreciation they would show for all kinds of plants and animals.   Increased knowledge of nature leads to increased appreciation of nature. Increased appreciation sparks more frequent visits to the natural world and increases the length of each visit.

Appreciation deepens to a feeling of love as the child begins to identify and empathize with the natural world. Once that attachment is formed, the child consistently exhibits environmentally responsible behavior in that place. Attachment to one special place will often generalize to changed behavior in other settings.

Unfortunately, most children today have little, if any, experience in wild nature, with or without a significant adult. In his fifteen years of interviewing families across the United States, Louv found:

With few exceptions, even in rural areas, parents say the same thing: Most children aren’t playing outside anymore, not in the woods or fields or canyons. A fifth-grader in San Diego described his world succinctly: ‘I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are’

As outdoor experience becomes less common, environmental education gains importance. It is here that children can be reconnected with “the restorative, challenging, primal qualities of nature” and guided through hands-on, personally meaningful activities, that construct an empathetic knowledge of the natural world.

Effective Environmental Education—three considerations

Experiences in wild nature shared with an important adult are vital components of successful environmental education. Further studies insist, however, that they are not the only considerations when designing experiences aimed at forming an ethic of stewardship.

Effective environmental education programs share several common features. They are experiential and personally meaningful . They are developmentally appropriate. They provide opportunity both for deeper understanding and for the application of new insights.

Experiential and personally meaningful

John Dewey, in 1891, articulated the importance of building connections between school and personal life:

From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school. That is the isolation of the school, its isolation from life

Duffin and Gostev and Weiss show that environmental education programs that succeed in increasing environmentally responsible behavior provide students with hands-on learning and abundant opportunities to make personal connections.

Developmentally appropriate

Research investigating children’s relationship with the natural world shows three clear stages of development. From age four to six a child connects with the immediate world through his empathy for living things, particularly animals. From age seven to eleven the child’s desire to explore becomes stronger–exploration activities become appropriate. It is not until the age of twelve that students typically can begin to deal with tragedies, so at this age social action can become a focus.

Environmental education that is developmentally insensitive can do more harm than good. Sobel especially cautions against introducing ecological problems to a child who has not developed the power of abstract thinking. Such premature calls to action will distance the child from the natural environment.

Developmentally appropriate curriculum, on the other hand, nurtures a strong connection to the natural environment in stages. First a child connects with her immediate environment, then to an expanding local landscape, and finally to the global environment. Formed in those experiences, she takes action when she is ready.

Opportunities for deeper understanding

Environmental education explores situations where the “correct” answer can be ambiguous. Students become equipped to respond to such complexity when, in the context of nature, they are coached through a process of assessment and judgment. Educators begin by teaching basic environmental knowledge, but the process does not stop there. Students learn to weigh the competing values that often make environmental decision-making difficult. Such experiences equip students to take action and allow them to assume increasing ownership of environmental problems.   Students feel empowered and confident as they apply knowledge to action. Students who have been coached in this way—prepared to think critically when faced with complex problems–are more likely to exhibit complex, environmentally responsible behavior.

Developing environmental empathy at Cayley School

Armed with research and eager to realize Cayley School’s vision to foster environmental stewardship, we designed a five-month environmental experience for the kindergarten class. From October ‘07 to March ’08 fourteen five and six year olds,eight boys and six girls of mixed socio-economic circumstances and academic and social ability, participated in a place-based environmental education model aimed at building environmental empathy and responsibility.

Because research emphasizes the powerful outcomes of time spent in wild nature with an important adult, our program design involved frequent outdoor experiences led by the kindergarten teacher. There were two components to the outdoor experience. The class frequently visited and explored natural environments within walking distance of the school. We also designated a more distant, wilder location (fifteen minutes away by bus) as Our Special Place and visited it several times throughout the duration of the project.

SloughTime in wild nature

Outdoor experiences in the surrounding environment happened daily. These were initially scheduled for the same time each day in order to create a habit of outdoor learning time. As outdoor time became entrenched in the day, access to the outdoors became more spontaneous and flexible.

Planned outdoor activities were drawn from resources such as Thomson and Arledge. (2002). Five Minute Field Trips: Teaching about Nature in Your Schoolyard; Cornell, J.B. (1979). Sharing Nature with Children; and Sobel, D. (2004). Place Based Education.   Planning was informed by Wilson’s (1986) guidelines: begin with simple experiences, provide frequent positive outdoor experiences, and focus on experiencing versus teaching.

The schoolyard at Cayley School offered many rich opportunities. Off the gravel of the play structure, there is a terraced, bushy Memorial Garden, big poplar trees, long grass, and ready access to fields. A fifteen minute walk north of the school yard offers a hay field and slough. Activities in the schoolyard and at the slough were planned with “wildness in mind” in order to maximize the positive influence of wild nature mentioned in the literature. Over the course of the five month study, a new subdivision being built north of Cayley expanded toward the slough and blocked the walking path for two weeks. The new construction presented an unexpected opportunity for conversation and questions.

Five times over the course of the project the class visited Our Special Place, an intact buffalo jump surrounded by native grassland called “Women’s Coulee.” We timed our visits so that students could experience the coulee across the seasons–late fall, winter and spring. Our activities at the coulee mirrored our daily outdoor activities within Cayley; however the trips to the coulee were far richer and more spontaneous due to its diversity and wildness. On one trip the students were able to study large, perfectly formed snowflakes that covered the ground. On another the group startled a female great horned owl off of a nest that we had assumed to be empty. On a return trip, with binoculars to study the owl, the students found prairie crocuses blooming.

An important adult

Remembering the role of a significant adult in shaping environmental responsibility, we carefully considered the teacher’s contribution to the children’s experience. The teacher enthusiastically supported the children’s budding sensitivity for wild places, demonstrating personal interest and enjoyment, and modeling care and respect for the natural environment. In order to broaden the network of important adults, parents and other community members were invited to join as assistants and fellow nature-learners.

Supporting nature experiences in the classroom

We made changes within the classroom to support our outdoor experiences. Curricular instruction integrated environmental themes. The space and routines within the classroom were also re-designed. Following their explorations, students came into the classroom to record their observations and research their questions. Reference books were readily available. Art materials were on hand to encourage students to represent their nature discoveries with their own hands and in various media. Nature journaling became a regular part of the experience as it is “hands-on learning at its best”.

The room decorations reflected a focus on our natural place, as well as the human penchant for displaying nature in interior spaces.   Natural materials were used as much as possible. Students were given an opportunity to share nature treasures on a well-lit discovery table at their viewing height.


Quantitative and qualitative data, gathered in pre-tests and post-tests, show that the kindergarten children at Cayley School built greater knowledge, developed keener interest, and formed more positive attitudes toward the natural environment as a result of our five-month trial.

Asked to identify the photographs of 16 local native animals in a pre-test and post-test, the group increased their correct answers by 32 percent. An increase in animal knowledge is a very powerful first step toward environmental stewardship. Lindemann and Matthies found that the more plants and animals children could identify in the field, the more appreciation they would show for all kinds of plants and animals.

An attitude questionnaire administered as a pre-test and post-test, measured the students’ empathy and emotional affinity with the natural world. Questions were designed to explore their concern for animals and plants, their participation in animal make-believe, evidence of love of nature, and whether they have feelings of freedom, of safety, and of oneness while in nature. A response of “no” to a question such as: Is it a good idea to pick wildflowers? was marked “positive” because it showed a protective attitude toward the natural environment.   Positive student responses on the attitude questionnaire increased 23% on the post-test.

When students were invited to explain why and why not on their answers to the post-test attitude survey, an interesting change emerged. Many students took longer to answer the questions than they had on the pre-test, now having to sort out an issue that was no longer obvious to them. For example, on the pre-test many students quickly and confidently stated that the spider should not be put outside, but should be killed. On the post-test students talked about the fact that spiders might bite or make a mess with their webs, explained methods for picking the spider up, and considered carefully before giving their response. Some students felt the need to explain behaviors that they now felt were inconsistent with what we had been learning.   When asked if it was a good idea to pick wild flowers, some explained that they did pick wild flowers, but only in places where there were lots of flowers.

Prior to and again following the trial, students drew a map showing special places that they could go to around the school. Pre-test maps showed a fairly equal representation of natural and man-made features. On the post-test, however, 83% of the features drawn on the post-test maps were natural. There were no animal drawings in the pre-test maps, but animal drawings were included in almost all of the post-test maps. The scope of the maps also expanded. Pre-test maps were almost all restricted to the boundaries of the school yard. The post-test maps showed a much wider geographic scope, indicating a broadening view of the world around the school and an expanding awareness that other creatures live in the places close to us.


The children of Cayley School kindergarten will perhaps never forget the excitement of seeing a startled owl explode off of a nest that we thought was empty. One boy said to his teacher on the bus ride back to school, “Feel my heart. It’s still going really fast.” The children who participated in the project developed a genuine, excited sense of connection to the natural world. They became eager to learn more. They developed more complex environmental thinking and showed a willingness to consider their decisions in relation to nature much more carefully.

Our educational trial brought the people of Cayley School closer to the vision they formed back in the spring 2005 when the Youth Environmental Stewardship Program (YES) was born. Experiences in wild nature, the leadership of a significant adult, and the educational support of the classroom offer powerful tools in shaping students toward lifelong leadership in environmental stewardship.


Fay Mascher began her teaching career with a variety of special education teaching positions in B.C. and Alberta. In 1992 she settled in High River and soon thereafter began her work at Cayley School where her focus has been primary education. In addition to her keen interest in environmental education, Fay was instrumental in the founding of the Cayley School strings program which now delivers violin instruction to students from Kindergarten to Grade 5. 

Jonas Cox teaches Learning Theory to undergraduate teacher candidates and currently serves as the Chair of Teacher Education at Gonzaga University. He has been active in the Environmental Education field for some time working with the Pacific Education Institute and recently serving as the Treasurer of EEAW. He can be reached at coxj@gonzaga.edu.

Chuck Salina is on the Gonzaga University School of Education faculty and is currently serving as the Turn Around Principal for the high school in Sunnyside Washington. His interest in social justice issues and high quality educational experience for youth has drawn him into environmental education. Chuck can be reached salina@gonzaga.edu.