Early Childhood Environmental Education

Source: Sharing Nature Worldwide.

For the child […], it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow […] It is more important to pave the way for a child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts that he is not ready to assimilate.—Rachel Carson, “Help Your Child to Wonder” (1956)

Source: The Season of Rachel Carson.

In my senior year at Oregon State University, I came across a book by Rachel Carson (1907-1964) called The Sense of Wonder (1965). Originally published in Woman’s Home Companion magazine under the title, “Helping Your Child to Wonder” (1956), the work speaks beautifully to the value of early childhood experiences in nature. The piece turned into the inspiration for my undergraduate honors thesis titled, “Our Natural Family: A study of young children and how we connect with nature.”

As schools nationwide begin to reopen after summer break this week, I found myself revisiting the idea of early childhood environmental education while I helped my mom prepare for another year teaching at Bozeman’s Pilgrim Preschool.

It is important to first distinguish what I mean by early childhood environmental education (ECEE). In this context, early childhood refers to the preschool years typically populated by 2 ½ to 5 year olds. Environmental education does not necessarily mean education in formal sense with a teacher, students, and lesson plans (although it certainly can mean this). At the young age of 2 ½ to 5 years, environmental education is more responsive to the needs and developmental level when it is focused more on play, discovery, and exploration rather than formal instruction (Armitage, 2007; Boyle, 2006; Edwards & Cutter-Mackenzie, 2006; White, 2006). I use the term more generally to represent experiences with and exposure to the outdoors. Environmental education in this sense includes Rachel Carson’s description of adults sharing a sense of wonder with children:

Source: Monkey Business Images.

And with your child you can ponder the mystery of a growing seed, even if it be only planted in a pot of earth in the kitchen window.—Rachel Carson, “Help Your Child to Wonder” (1956)

Therefore, ECEE captures that critical time before elementary school when children—arguably the most in touch with their natural roots—not only exist in their most impressionable states of being but are also powerful agents of change (Wilson, 1996). The early years of childhood are when most people develop their phobias of and their affections for the natural world (Louv, 2007). Many of the current models of child development suggest a connection between a child’s experiences and the development of their attitudes and way of understanding the world around them. Children, especially young children, learn by hands on experience through which they actively construct their knowledge base (Bandura, 1977; Dewey, 1938; Nye, 1986; Piaget, 1947; Vygotskiĭ, 1998).

Source: Sharing Nature Worldwide.

ECEE can be an opportunity to expose children to the natural world in a way that will encourage positive interaction between the child and their environment through hands on experiences. A caring parent and/or educator can help guide a child towards positive and beneficial attitudes and ways of thinking about nature (Robertson, 2008).

The traditional “Western/European” approach to learning, however, tends to separate children from nature both physically and psychologically. Urban children consequently tend to fear wildland places and feel uncomfortable when surrounded by natural elements (Wilson, 2006). On the other hand, children who consistently experience nature tend to develop more positive attitudes and actions towards it (Wilson, 2006). Reinforcement of nature-based experiences over time is key to fostering positive relationships between children and nature (Hungerford & Volk, 1990). This is evidenced in how many adults with a positive connection to nature can associate it with their childhood experiences.

Source: Orion Magazine.

Early childhood experiences with nature have been linked with the development of creativity, wonder, and imagination and in turn help foster a life-long love of the natural world (Cohen, 1984; Devall, 1984/85; Raglan, 1993; Sebba, 1991; Tanner, 1980; Wilson, 2006). Furthermore, childhood encounters with natural places, such as a forest, have been shown to positively correlate with the individual’s later patterns of use and attitudes towards such places as an adult (Thompson, Peter, & Montarzino, 2008). To encourage such lasting development, children should be provided with consistent access to natural places (which can be a park, urban garden, or even a potted plant in cities), encouraged in natural play activities, and their ways of knowing—which are more rooted in experience than an that of an adult—respected (Wilson, 2007).

Today, however, children are playing outside less and are increasingly disconnected with nature (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2010). Richard Louv’s (2007) research on nature-deficit disorder helps establish the importance of nature in the lives of children by connecting the increasing lack of nature in today’s technologically driven generation with many serious and rising childhood issues such as obesity, depression, and attention disorders (Louv, 2005). As more and more land is developed, not only is natural habitat destroyed, but communities also tend to be erected in ways that deter any real contact with nature. This, in combination with several other societal factors such as the rising popularity of video games, is discouraging early childhood experiences in nature (Louv, 2007). The current generation of young children’s physical contact and intimacy with nature is fading; such is the premise of nature-deficit disorder.

But we have the opportunity to alter this course—and there are several great examples out there of ECEE in practice:

Source: Montana Outdoor Science School.

  • Joseph Cornell’s pocketbook, Sharing Nature with Children (1979), provides forty-two games designed to help children learn from nature, to stimulate joy, and to foster insights and experiences through nature for children.
  • The Chippewa Nature Center, Corvallis Waldorf School, Montana Outdoor Science School, and Hopa Mountain all have environmental education programs, including ways to bring the outdoors into the classroom as a strategy for teaching about the natural environment. This can be as simple as choosing play toys made from natural materials, such as wood, over synthetic materials, keeping plants and animals in the classroom, and using pro-nature books in lessons (Wilson, 2006).

Source: Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder Contest.

  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts on an annual poetry, essay, photo, and dance contest called the Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder Contest. Entries are from teams of two, made up of a young person and older person, with the intention of working across generations to share their interactions, reflections, and sense of wonder “for the sea, the night sky, forests, birds, wildlife, and all that is beautiful to your eyes.” This year’s 2012 contest focused on water to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act.
  • The Nature Nursery, a preschool from central Alberta Canada, centers its curriculum on a nature-based theme. Young children participate in dramatic play, crafts, books, games, and outdoor exploration. The idea is to connect children to nature and the environment.
  • Early Childhood Australia (ECA), the country’s national association for early childhood educators, released a Code of Ethics in September 2008 that includes a requirement for its educators to encourage and educate children so that they understand their place as global citizens with shared responsibilities to both humanity and the environment.

Source: NAAEE.

So there are examples and success stories of ECEE taking form and action. In fact, the Project WET Foundation has had plans to expand its Kids In Discovery series (KIDs) activity booklets to include Little KIDs activity booklets for preschool-age children (funding is, not surprisingly, the roadblock). As programs like those highlighted in this post grow in popularity, I look forward to environmental educations programs becoming a normal part of school curriculums, rather than the exception.

Works Cited

      • Armitage, K. C. (2007). ‘The Child is Born a Naturalist’: Nature Study, Woodcraft Indian, and the Theory of Recapitulation. Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 6 (1), 43-70.
      • Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
      • Boyle, L. (2006). Environmental Experiences in Child Care. Putting Children First (19), 14-17.
      • Cohen, M. J. (1984). Prejudice Against Nature. Freeport, Maine: Cobblesmith.
      • Devall, W. (1984/85). A Sense of Earth Wisdom. Journal of Environmental Education, 16 (2), 1-3.
      • Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books.
      • Edwards, S., & Cutter-Mackenzie, A. (2006). Chapter 19: Eco-Literacy and the Content-Pedagogy Relationship in Early Childhood Education. Sharing wisdom for our future, 170-177.
      • Hungerford, H. R., & Volk, T. L. (1990). Changing Learner Behavior Through Environmental Education. Journal of Environmental Education, 21 (3), 8-21.
      • Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
      • Louv, R. (2007, March/April). Leave No Child Inside. Orion Magazine.
      • Nye, R. D. (1986). Three psychologies: Perspectives from Freud, Skinner, and Rogers. Belmont, California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
      • Piaget, J. (1947). The psychology of intelligence; translated. [Psychologie de l’intelligence]. London: Psychology Press.
      • Raglan, R. (1993). Reading the World: Overt and Covert Learning in Environmental Writing for Children. Journal of Environmental Education, 24 (4), 4-7.
      • Robertson, J. S. (2008). Forming Preschoolers’ Environmental Attitude: Lasting Effects of Early Childhood Environmental Education. Thesis.
      • Sebba, R. (1991). The Landscapes of Childhood: The Reflection of Childhood’s Environment in Adult Memories and in Children’s Attitudes. Environment and Behavior, 23 (4), 395-422.
      • Tanner, T. (1980). Significant Life Experience: A New Research Area in Environmental Education. Journal of Environmental Education, 11 (4), 20-24.
      • Thompson, C. W., Peter, A., & Montarzino, A. (2008). The Childhood Factor: Adult Visits to Green Places and the Significance of Childhood Experience. Environment and Behavior, 40 (1), 111-143.
      • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2010, April 26). Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Retrieved July 12, 2010 from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/rachelcarson/aboutus.html.
      • Vygotskiĭ, L. S. (1998). The Problem of Age. In The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky: Child psychology (Vol. 5, pp. 187-205). New York: Springer Publishing.
      • White, R. (2006). Young Children’s Relatinship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development and the Earth’s Future. Taproot, 16 (2).
      • Wilson, R. A. (2006, Summer). Environmental Education: Bringing the Outdoors In. Day Care and Early Education, 32-34.
      • Wilson, R. A. (1996). The Development of the Ecological Self. Early Childhood Environmental Education Journal, 24 (2), 121-132.
      • Wilson, R. A. (2007). The Wonders of Nature: Honoring Children’s Ways of Knowing. Early Childhood News.



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