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Just as ethnobotanists are descending on tropical forests in search of new plants for medical uses, environmental educators, parents, and teachers are descending on second and third graders to teach them about the rainforests.
From Brattleboro, Vermont to Berkeley, California, school children are learning about tapirs, poison arrow frogs, and biodiversity. They hear the story of the murder of activist Chico Mendez and watch videos about the plight of indigenous forest people displaced by logging and exploration for oil. The motive for all this is honorable and just: if children are aware of the problems of too many people utilizing too few resources, they will grow up to be adults who eat Rainforest Crunch, vote for environmental candidates, and buy energy-efficient cars.
They will learn that by recycling their Weekly Readers and milk cartons, they can help save the planet. My fear is that just the opposite is occurring. If we fill our classrooms with examples of environmental abuse, we may be engendering a subtle form of dissociation.
In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn to cut themselves off from pain. My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum similarly ends up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. Visiting his own childhood neighborhood and elementary school, he talked with school children and noted that the relationship between children and nature has changed significantly in the last thirty years:.
While children do seem to be spending less time physically in natural surroundings, they also seem to worry more about the disappearance of nature—in a global sense—than my generation did…. As a boy, I was intimate with the fields and the woods behind my house, and protective of them. Yet, unlike these children, I had no sense of any ecological degradation beyond my small natural universe.
While children are studying the rainforest, they are not studying the northern hardwood forest, or even just the overgrown meadow outside the classroom door. This is the foundation upon which an eventual understanding of ocelots and orchids can be built. Some teachers can study both local forests and rainforests, and connect one to the other artfully, but many prefer rainforests because, from a curriculum perspective, they are much tidier to teach.
To study the northern hardwood forest, you have to send a note home to parents reminding them that the kids have to wear boots next Tuesday. You have to deal with unruly kids and wind blowing the clipboard paper all over the place. To study rainforests, you can stay inside and look at all the pretty pictures of all those strange and wonderful animals, and make a miniature jungle. In the face of this dissociation, children still try to make ends meet, to connect the far away and the close-by worlds.
Saving endangered species is just as much the rage as saving the rainforest these days, and so a recent school project on African wildlife had motivated this girl to take protective action. When I was training to be an elementary school teacher, my professor in a math methods course speculated that if we waited until sixth grade, we could teach all of elementary school mathematics in eight weeks.
Recently, 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 has improved the teaching of mathematics and helped reduce math phobia.
Unable to connect the signs and symbols on the paper with the real world, many children were turning off to math. For adult math phobics, just the thought of long division can make them short of breath. As in any phobic reaction, the afflicted person feels anxiety and wants to flee from the situation. But with more child-centered math instruction, the problem of math phobia has diminished. Perhaps to be replaced by ecophobia. Fear of rainforest destruction, acid rain, and Lyme disease.
Fear of just being outside. If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems of an adult world, we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength. A graduate student of mine stumbled upon an intriguing discovery in his research with children. My assignment to the teachers in training was to conduct research that allowed them to open doors into the inner lives and thoughts of children. Steve Moore wanted to findout what was important to second graders.
He selected twenty-five magazine pictures of children on bicycles, people playing baseball, happy families, toys, dogs, eagles, pretty landscapes, farms, the earth from space, workplaces, and the like. Then he encouraged children to choose three pictures that seemed important and talk about them.
Moore conducted his interviews with forty seven and eight year olds in four different second-grade classrooms in adjoining towns. When he analyzed his results, he found a curious pattern. In two of the classrooms, many children chose the picture of the earth from space, the eagle, and the deer. They talked about saving the planet, stopping pollution, and protecting eagles.
In the other two classrooms, the children chose pictures of legos, playing baseball, homes, and families as the important things in life. In the interviews, the children seemed energetic and enthusiastic to participate in the discussions.
When Moore saw this pattern, he returned to the classrooms, spoke to the teachers and discovered a possible explanation for the differences. The first two classes had done an extensive Earth Week curriculum shortly before he conducted the interviews. Rainforest pictures were up on the walls, books and stories with environmental topics were in evidence, and one of the classes had just visited a new environmental education center.
The second two classes had done very little for Earth Week and almost no environmental curriculum. These teachers were a little sheepish about their apparent avoidance of these issues. When he looked again at his results from this perspective, he found another pattern. In his total sample he found:. All these comments were made by children in the Earth Week classes.
Seven of these comments were made by children in the Earth Week classes, nine by children in the non-Earth Week classes.
Fourteen of these were made by children in non-Earth Week classes and one by a child in an Earth Week class. The whole issue of the Earth Week curriculum was a big eye opener to me.
The interview patterns suggest that kids who had spent a week or more working on environmental issues were fully taken in by them. The Earth Week group made choices that were heavily weighted with concerns about the earth, the animals, homeless children. The non-Earth Week classes made choices about playing, about families, about having fun. I think we need to be careful about this kind of curricular brainwashing with children this age.
Concerned about acid rain effects on forests, the ozone hole, heavy metal pollution in European rivers, the aftermath of Chernobyl, and other environmental problems, the Germans implemented a conscientious national curriculum endeavor.
The intent was to raise the consciousness of the elementary student body throughout the country regarding environmental problems. By informing students about the problems and showing them how they could participate in finding the solutions, the education ministry hoped to create empowered global citizens.
Follow-up studies conducted some years after implementation indicated just the opposite had occurred. As a result of the curriculum initiative, education officials found that students felt hopeless and disempowered. One way to approach this problem is to figure out what contributes to the development of environmental values in adults.
What happened in the childhoods of environmentalists, some researchers have asked, to make them grow up with strong ecological values? A handful of these studies have been conducted, and when Louise Chawla of Kentucky State University reviewed these studies she found an intriguing pattern.
What a simple solution. No rainforest curriculum, no environmental action, just opportunities to be in the natural world with modeling by a responsible adult. Defenders of Wildlife raises money by showing us the cuddly harp seal being bludgeoned to death. For adults, with a commitment to preservation and a sense of self firmly in place, this technique appropriately motivates us to action.
For young children—kindergarten through third or fourth grade—this technique is counterproductive. Lurking beneath these environmentally correct curricula is the assumption that if children see the horrible things that are happening, then they too will be motivated to make a difference. But those images can have an insidious, nightmarish effect on young children whose sense of time, place, and self are still forming. Newspaper pictures of homes destroyed by California wildfires are disturbing to my seven-year-old New Hampshire daughter because she immediately personalizes them.
Will our house burn down? What if we have a forest fire? But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow. Bonding with the Earth We often refer to those moments of wondrous happenstance as being in the right place at the right time. To get a sense of when to study rainforests or endangered species, or perhaps how to do environmental curricula at different ages, we need a scheme, a big picture of the relationship between the natural world and the development of the person.
The heart of childhood, from seven to eleven, is the critical period for bonding with the earth. Though these age frames need to be considered flexibly, my argument is that environmental education should be tangibly different during each period.
Over the past ten years, I have collected neighborhood maps from hundreds of children in the United States, England, and the Caribbean. From my analysis of these maps and interviews and field trips with these children, I have found clear patterns of development in the relationship between the child and her expanding natural world.
Children often describe the worms, chipmunks, pigeons that live in their yards or on their blocks and feel protective about these creatures. 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 currently investigating.
From eleven to fourteen 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. Annie Dillard captures this fascination with expanding horizons in her description of growing up in Pittsburgh in An American Childhood:.
Alone at night I added newly memorized streets and blocks to old streets and blocks, and imagined connecting them on foot…. On darkening evenings I came home exultant, secretive, often from some exotic leafy curb a mile beyond what I had known at lunch, where I had peered up at the street sign, hugging the cold pole, and fixed the intersection in my mind.
What joy, what relief, eased me as I pushed open the heavy front door! These special places of childhood, both found and built places, appear to be crucially important for many children from ages eight to eleven. Kim Stafford describes this movement:. Here was my private version of civilization, my separate hearth.
Back Home, there were other versions of this. I would take any refuge from the thoroughfare of plain living—the doll-house, the tree-house, furniture, the tablecloth tent, the attic, the bower in the cedar tree….
There I pledged allegiance to what I knew, as opposed to what was common. But, I did not make that house, or find it, or earn it with my own money. It was given to me. My separate hearth had to be invented by me, kindled, sustained, and held secret by my own soul as a rehearsal for departure.
Beyond Ecophobia : Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education
Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education