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Educate. Empower. Act. The mission of Project WET is to reach children, parents, educators and communities of the world with water education. We invite you to join us in educating children about the most precious resource on the planet — water.
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; Vygotskii, 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). 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.
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 when funding is available. 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.