by Jay Young, Director of Operations, Carp Ridge Forest School

(Ed note: This month we’re posting Part 2 of a talk Jay presented to environmental educators at a recent ‘Congress of the Humanities.’ Part 1 is hereThe event was co-sponsored by Wilfred Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.

The rest of the talk will be posted in the next few newsletters. If you’d like a full transcript of the presentation, contact Jay at: jay@carpridgelearningcentre.ca)
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The theory behind experiential environmental education & forest schools

After having had the opportunity to observe and interact with the children at the Forest Preschool & Kindergarten, I really do believe that forest schools can create active ecocitizens. Forest schools foster an early understanding of sustainability, develop environmental literacy, teach about conservation, and encourage empathic relationships with other people and animals.

They might even help the evolution of a culture-wide biospheric consciousness, not to mention the obvious physical and developmental benefits associated with activity-based and immersive environmental education.

Ecocitizens in our future world will need all these characteristics. This is a decisive time in human and evolutionary history. It is irrefutable that humans are causing calamitous effects on the life nurturing functions of the earth. How do we mitigate or undo these effects? How do we change collective behaviours that are so deleterious to our home?

It would seem the answer lies with an awareness of what we have caused, then a shift in our capacity to care about these effects, and finally the will to do something about it. How might we arrive at this understanding, its attendant change of heart and the collective will?

If we encourage the next generation to become ecologically literate and environmentally aware, they might help us to avert a potentially bleak future. And those of us privileged to work with children who will be our future workers, activists and leaders must model the lives that we wish these children to experience, and provide them with positive attitudes toward our collective future on earth.

Connecting to nature in the formative years

Experiential environmental education can be an important influence in the development of this next generation of environmental citizens. And the education must start at the stage where children are just beginning to grasp what it means to be an individual self, let alone a citizen among others.

This might be the most crucial and formative age to begin this process because if kids are going to care about what happens to the earth, they need to know it; they need to immerse themselves in it and feel themselves a part of it, connected to it, engaged with it.

If we place children into relationship with nature at an early age, they will come to appreciate it, care for it and repay the gratitude that they feel for it because they are aware of the integral relationships that all life has to our planet, our home, the only one we will ever have. I believe that through this revolutionary educational process, we might help to develop and mentor the young people that will grow up with a new environmental ethos and understanding that informs an engaged and ecologically literate environmental citizenry.

Ecocitizenry, adulthood and politics

Environmental citizenship is the collective actions of a citizenry devoted to fostering sustainable relationships between humans and their natural environments. It challenges the current policies and citizenship models that do not acknowledge the complexity of environmental problems.

However, the whole concept of environmental citizenship may be a rather different idea by the time these children invoke their rights as citizens on behalf of the planet. Not to mention the natural environments within which and with whom we will undoubtedly be continuing to attempt sustainable relations.

Environmental citizenship considers the rights and responsibilities of the citizen in relation to the state in matters pertaining to the natural environment, at least in modern instances. While the state may be a necessary intermediary in the strictest sense, I conceive of  environmental citizenship to be too limiting a concept and prefer ‘ecocitizen’.

What guides the process of experiential environmental education?

Environmental ethics is implicit in a genuinely experiential environmental education. If we conceive of environmental ethics as a philosophical position that serves as a moral foundation for action in relation to the environment then certainly, experiential environmental education would itself be an ethic.

The facilitation of the programs that encourage the children to engage with the natural environment and to experience the embodied existence of nature with all their senses would be considered actions based on an appreciation for the importance of the natural environment to human flourishing. When we talk about environmental education, there must necessarily be an environmental ethic guiding this process and underlying any ethic is a degree of concern or care for the subject matter, an ethic of care, if you will.

This concern or care is an affective result of the subject’s experience with, in this context, nature. So that ultimately the ethic boils down to an affect and I believe that affect to be empathy. It is broad enough a concept to accommodate the multiple expressions of environmental concern yet a unique experience for each individual. Empathy defined as the experience of relating to others, in this case, nature or elements of nature.

Through experiential environmental education, children can develop appreciation, concern, even empathy for other beings and the larger environments of which they are a part and perhaps this is the reason: they conceive of themselves as a part of a larger whole.

Experiential environmental education encourages relationality and appreciation for the mutual interdependence of all life. If we give children natural environments about which and in which to learn, they will flourish and repay the gratitude that they feel for the planet that provides them with all environments.

Making experiential environmental education part of mainstream education

If we can adopt practices and promote learning about and in nature in our schools then these schools can produce a generation of environmental citizens. Through the experiential model of early childhood education, we can see the benefits that children receive from play-based outdoor education and the development of an ethic of care for nature that only first-hand experience in nature can provide.

This in turn creates an ethos of care for the planet that influences actions in our local communities, our provincial and federal policies and our whole cultural consciousness about environmental citizenship. We can help this generation’s development with the steps we take now in our educational institutions and the inclusion of educational reformers that force us to think outside the box.

But however much the environment is a focal point of concern in modern cultures and such topics as climate change, species loss and dwindling natural resources are high on the list of priorities for our societies, I think we must all admit that mainstream politics is slow to catch up to this momentum and policy lags behind research to a great extent.

Getting a ‘fringe movement’ into the orthodox curriculum

And in any financial considerations, economics almost always trumps environment, even if we know better. And finally, the small core of experiential environmental educators and those families they serve are a fringe community. I suppose this is ultimately what led me to compose this talk — because of the fringe community within which I find myself.

We are probably getting publicity because we are something of an anomaly. But how do we ‘fringers’ change this? How do you make the environment of paramount importance and education about it a legitimate part of mainstream educational curriculum? How do you make nature the ultimate concern? I propose situating experiential environmental education as a necessity in the educational system, as we become increasingly aware of the inextricable links between the planet’s future and our own.

However, there is little content in educational policy that encourages environmental literacy in the average student. The occasional fieldtrip doesn’t count. But alternatives are being developed outside the orthodox educational system with the growing number of Forest Schools, Nature Kindergartens and experiential environmental education centres found throughout the world and in development here in Canada.

Next month: How an environmental consciousness is created in a forest school setting