[Türkçe çeviri için yorum bölümüne bkz.]
If we want children to flourish, says educator David Sobel, we need to give them time to connect with nature and love the Earth before we ask them to save it.
Case Analysis: The Problem of ‘Modern Times’
What is emerging is a strange kind of schizophrenia. Children are disconnected from the world outside their doors and connected with endangered animals and ecosystems around the globe through electronic media.
The crux of the issue is the developmental appropriateness of environmental curricula. One problem we have in schools is premature abstraction – we teach too abstractly, too early. Mathematics educators have recently realized that premature abstraction was one of the major causes of math phobia among children in the primary grades. Unable to connect the signs and symbols on the paper with the real world, many children were turning off to math. Mathematics instruction has been reinvigorated in the last two decades through the use of concrete materials (such as cuisinaire rods, fraction bars, and Unifix cubes) and the grounding of math instruction in the stuff and problems of everyday life. The result has been the turning of the tide against math phobia.
Perhaps to be replaced by ecophobia – a fear of ecological problems and the natural world. Fear of oil spills, rainforest destruction, whale hunting, acid rain, the ozone hole, and Lyme disease. Fear of just being outside. If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems beyond their understanding and control, then I think we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength.
Act: Simple Solution to Foster Environmentally Awareness
I propose that there are healthy ways to foster environmentally aware, empowered students. We can cure the malaise of ecophobia with ecophilia –supporting children’s biological tendency to bond with the natural world.
If curricula focused on saving the Earth don’t work, what does? One way to find the answer is to figure out what contributes to the development of environmental values in adults. What happened in the childhoods of environmentalists to make them grow up with strong ecological values?
A handful of studies like this have been conducted. Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources: “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.” What a simple solution!
Stages of Development: Formative Years of Bonding with the Earth
The formative years of bonding with the Earth include three stages of development that should be of primary concern to parents and teachers: early childhood from ages four to seven, the elementary years from eight to eleven, and early adolescence from 12 to 15. Though these age frames need to be considered flexibly, my belief is that environmental education should have a different tenor and style during each of these stages.
Over the past 10 years, I have collected neighborhood maps from hundreds of children in the US, England, and the Caribbean. Through analyzing these maps and doing interviews and field trips with these same children, I have found clear patterns of development in the relationship between the child and his or her expanding world.
From ages four to seven, children’s homes fill the center of their maps, and much of their play is within sight or earshot of the home. Children often describe the worms, chipmunks, and pigeons that live in their yards or on their blocks, and they feel protective of these creatures.
From eight to eleven, children’s geographical ranges expand rapidly. Their maps push off the edge of the page, and they often need to attach extra pieces of paper to map the new terrain they are investigating. Children’s homes become small, inconsequential, and often move to the periphery of the map. The central focus in their maps is the “explorable landscape.”
From 12 to 15, the maps continue to expand in scope and become more abstract, but the favored places often move out of the woods and into town. Social gathering places such as the mall, the downtown luncheonette, and the town park take on new significance.
At each of these stages, children desire immersion, solitude, and interaction in a close, knowable world. We take children away from these strength-giving landscapes when we ask them to deal with distant ecosystems and environmental problems. Rather, we should be attempting to engage children more deeply in knowing the flora, fauna, and character of their own local places. The woods behind the school and the neighborhood streets and stores are the places to start.
How do we translate these notions into guidelines for environmental education?
I propose three phases of environmental curricula during the elementary and middle school years. In early childhood, activities should center on enhancing the developmental tendency toward empathy with the natural world. In middle childhood, exploration should take precedence. And in early adolescence, social action should assume a more central role.
Empathy: Finding Animal Allies
Empathy between the child and the natural world should be a main objective for children ages four through seven. As children begin their forays into the natural world, we can encourage feelings for the creatures living there. Early childhood is characterized by a lack of differentiation between the self and the other. Children feel implicitly drawn to baby animals; a child feels pain when someone else scrapes her knee. Rather than force separateness, we want to cultivate that sense of connectedness so that it can become the emotional foundation for the more abstract ecological concept that everything is connected to everything else. Stories, songs, moving like animals, celebrating seasons, and fostering “sense of wonder” should be primary activities during this stage.
Cultivating relationships with animals, both real and imagined, is one of the best ways to foster empathy during early childhood. Children want to run like deer, to slither along the ground like snakes, to be clever as a fox and quick like a bunny. There’s no need for endangered species here – there are more than enough common, everyday species to fill the lives of children. And the environmentally correct notion of not anthropomorphizing animals can be thrown out the window.
Paul Shepard, in The Arc of the Mind, says: “Animals have a magnetic affinity for the child, for each in its way seems to embody some impulse, reaction, or movement that is ‘like me.’ In the playful, controlled enactment of them comes a gradual mastery of the personal inner zoology of fears, joys, and relationships. In the stories told, their forms spring to life in the mind, re-presented in consciousness, training the capacity to imagine.”
Explore: Following Activities with Preschool Children Can Be Done
- Exploring life as birds
- Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
- The Amazon in us
- Exploration: teaching the landscape
- Water basin wisdom
- Creek care
- The Deep, Dark Dungeon
- Social action: saving the neighborhood
- Allowing time for nature
Suffering from the timesickness of trying to do too much too quickly, we infect our children with our impatience. As a result, depth is sacrificed for breadth, and there’s little opportunity for immersion in the landscape. Instead, we make children do workbooks in kindergarten, we let seven year-olds watch Jurassic Park, and we bombard them with tragic anxiety.
If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it. Perhaps this is what Thoreau had in mind when he said, “the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.”
Adapted from volume one of the Orion Society Nature Literacy Series, “Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education.” by David Sobel