Have you read this article yet? Look, Don’t Touch: The Problem with Environmental Education by David Sobel.
I’ve been pondering over this for a while. How much of Charlotte Mason’s encouragement of nature study and time outdoors is echoed here!
I love the quote from John Muir that he uses throughout the article:
The sudden plash into pure wildness—baptism in Nature’s warm heart—how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. . . . Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkling lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together!
That should be my measuring stick for outdoor time. Is this encouraging my children to be “wildly, gladly rejoicing together”? I fear I fail in so many ways. Both my husband and I talk about the long hours we spent outdoors. He did build forts, wallpapered with baseball cards — it’s one of his favorite memories.
You’re thinking: environmental education is supposed to connect children with nature, to get them started on a lifetime of loving and wanting to protect the natural world. Yes—that’s what is supposed to happen. But somewhere along the way, much of environmental education lost its magic, its “wildly, gladly rejoicing together.” Instead, it’s become didactic and staid, restrictive and rule bound. A creeping focus on cognition has replaced the goal of exhilaration that once motivated educators to take children outside.
Much of environmental education today has taken on a museum mentality, where nature is a composed exhibit on the other side of the glass. Children can look at it and study it, but they can’t do anything with it. The message is: Nature is fragile. Look, but don’t touch. Ironically, this “take only photographs, leave only footprints” mindset crops up in the policies and programs of many organizations trying to preserve the natural world and cultivate children’s relationships to it.
Ugh. How true, but how easily to get sucked into this thinking. Any parks or paths we take I feel restricted, like someone is watching you, making sure you don’t veer from the path or disturb any vegetation. Is it really wrong to pick up the acorns or walnuts? I think not, but as the adult, I’ve been burdened with guilt. I do NOT want to pass that on to my children.
And the rules. I’m learning to just relax, but it’s taking much longer than I hoped. I try not to give warnings all the time, but then I hear myself talking.
Between the ages of six and twelve, children have an innate desire to explore the woods, build forts, make potions from wild berries, dig to China, and each of these activities is an organic, natural way for them to develop environmental values and behaviors. Instead, the “look but don’t touch” approach cuts kids off from nature, teaching them that nature is boring and fraught with danger. Inadvertently, these messages send children back inside to the dynamic interactivity of computer games. Could it be that our fear of litigation and our puritanical concerns for protecting each and every blade of grass are hampering the development of the very stewardship values and behaviors that we environmental educators all say we’re trying to foster? I believe so.
Ah, digging to China! I think we all wanted to do it!
Wilson, Muir, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold all had such down-and-dirty experiences in childhood. Wilson didn’t just look at butterflies, he collected them. He didn’t take only photographs and leave only footprints, he caught ants and put them in jars to observe them. He was a collector, not a photographer, and he was allowed to indulge his curiosity without the scolding finger of an interfering adult. Generalizing from his own biographic experience, he summarizes, “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.”
Emphasis added by me. This sums it up what nature study should be. I think instead of viewing as “environmental education” we are helping them become naturalists. And by golly, naturalists are collectors. Viewing my jars of bugs on the counter at any different kind, I do think I’m encouraging that aspect. I save the jars, because you never know what critter you might find. (The Eyed Click Beetle was a recent one, and I can’t say I really enjoy fixing dinner around him.)
Children are in tune with their senses, more keenly than adults. The learning is tied in with the senses. My oldest is one who needs to touch everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. My youngest needs to smell everything to assess.
Herein lie my two main points. First, environmental educators need to allow children to be “untutored savages” for a while. Nature programs should invite children to make mud pies, climb trees, catch frogs, paint their faces with charcoal, get their hands dirty and their feet wet. They should be allowed to go off the trail and have fun. Second, environmental educators need to focus way more on hands-on experience with children and way less on systematic knowledge. Or at least understand that systematic knowledge can emerge organically from lots of hands-on experience. Between the ages of six and twelve, learning about nature is less important than simply getting children out into nature.
The whole orientation is to encourage the kids to observe, wonder, see patterns, and make sense of things. Names and concepts, environmental knowledge, emerged organically out of these hands-on explorations.
Haven’t we heard similar plans unfolded by Miss Mason? This just really illustrates “Education is a Science of Relations”. We read in her own words from Volume One: Home Education, Part Two, Out of Door Life for Children:
It would be well if we all persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.
The whole section is rich, and just echoes this whole article. This is for the younger children, but even for the older children (as David Sobel mentions 6-12), Miss Mason encourages the same observation but going deeper (see Volume 3: School Education, Chapter 21:
Science.––In Science, or rather, nature study, we attach great importance to recognition, believing that the power to recognise and name a plant or stone or constellation involves classification and includes a good deal of knowledge. To know a plant by its gesture and habitat, its time and its way of flowering and fruiting; a bird by its flight and song and its times of coming and going; to know when, year after year, you may come upon the redstart and the pied fly-catcher, means a good deal of interested observation, and of; at any rate, the material for science. The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. These note-books are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings (brushwork) of twig, flower, insect, etc. The knowledge necessary for these records is not given in the way of teaching. On one afternoon in the week, the children (of the Practising School) go for a ‘nature walk’ with their teachers. They notice for themselves, and the teacher gives a name or other information as it is asked for, and it is surprising what a range of knowledge a child of nine or ten acquires. The teachers are careful not to make these nature walks an opportunity for scientific instruction, as we wish the children’s attention to be given to observation with very little direction. In this way they lay up that store of ‘common information’ which Huxley considered should precede science teaching; and, what is much more important, they learn to know and delight in natural objects as in the familiar faces of friends. The nature-walk should not be made the occasion to impart a sort of Tit-Bits miscellany of scientific information. The study of science should be pursued in an ordered sequence, which is not possible or desirable in a walk. It seems to me a sine quâ non of a living education that all school children of whatever grade should have one half-day in the week, throughout the year, in the fields. There are few towns where country of some sort is not accessible, and every child should have the opportunity of watching from week to week, the procession of the seasons.
And this is all summarized in Volume 6: Towards a Philosophy of Education, Section III:
They are expected to do a great deal of out-of-door work in which they are assisted by The Changing Year, admirable month by month studies of what is to be seen out-of-doors. They keep records and drawings in a Nature Note Book and make special studies of their own for the particular season with drawings and notes.
The studies of Form III for one term enable children to––”Make a rough sketch of a section of ditch or hedge or sea-shore and put in the names of the plants you would expect to find.” “Write notes with drawings of the special study you have made this term,” “What do you understand by calyx, corolla, stamen, pistil? In what ways are flowers fertilised?” “How would you find the Pole Star? Mention six other stars and say in what constellations they occur.” “How would you distinguish between Early, Decorated and Perpendicular Gothic? Give drawings.” Questions like these, it will be seen, cover a good deal of field work, and the study of some half dozen carefully selected books on natural history, botany, architecture and astronomy, the principle being that children shall observe and chronicle, but shall not depend upon their own unassisted observation.
The study of natural history and botany with bird lists and plant lists continues throughout school life, while other branches of science are taken term by term.
And in her final volume, Volume 6: Towards a Philosophy of Education, Chapter 4, she has this lovely summary, which echoes John Muir:
We are doing something; we are trying to open the book of nature to children by the proper key––knowledge, acquaintance by look and name, if not more, with bird and flower and tree; we see, too, that the magic of poetry makes knowledge vital, and children and grown-ups quote a verse which shall add blackness to the ashbud, tender wonder to that “flower in the crannied wall,” a thrill to the song of the lark. As for the numerous field clubs of the northern towns, the members of which, weavers, miners, artisans, reveal themselves as accomplished botanists, birdmen, geologists, their Saturday rambles mean not only “life,” but splendid joy. It is to be hoped that the opportunities afforded in the schools will prepare women to take more part in these excursions; at present the work done is too thorough for their endurance and for their slight attainments.
Splendid Joy!!! Splendid!!!
I need to start requesting my library to carry David Sobel’s books! I really like his style of writing and his philosophy.
While not exactly inline with this discussion, I also wanted to highlight these commentaries by Jeff Mirus:
The Moral Downside of Climate Change
Climate Change and Moral Knowledge and
Scientific Disagreement about Climate Change
They all highlight the moral issue and man’s obligation on nature, which does dovetail when we talk about environmental education. I’m tired of the guilt.
Well, this turned out to be too long, and I had something else to share along these lines…so next post!