ERIC Identifier: ED402147
Publication Date: 1996-03-00
Author: Wilson, Ruth A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Starting Early: Environmental Education during the Early
Childhood Years. ERIC Digest.
When should environmental education begin--in the third grade; first grade;
kindergarten? Even earlier. Environmental education based on life experiences
should begin during the very earliest years of life. Such experiences play a
critical role in shaping life-long attitudes, values, and patterns of behavior
toward natural environments (Tilbury, 1994; Wilson, 1994).
Because young children learn about the environment by interacting with it,
educators and other adults must attend to the frequency, nature, and quality of
child-environment interactions during the early years. Many young children have
limited opportunities for such experiences. Studies indicate that the average
American spends more than 95% of his or her time indoors (Cohen, 1984), and that
by the year 2000, more than 90% of all Americans will live in urban areas
(Schicker, 1988). Studies also indicate that children growing up in urban areas
tend to develop unfounded fears and feelings of disgust in relation to natural
objects (Bixler, Carlisle, Hammitt, & Floyd, 1994).
Yet, it's not just children living in urban areas who should be targeted for
environmental education during their preschool years. Many young children,
regardless of where they live, spend most of their time in settings and
activities that keep them essentially isolated from direct contact with the
natural world. Recreation tends to be indoors (e.g., watching TV);
transportation tends to be by car or other motor vehicle versus walking; and
daycare programs--where many children spend most of their waking hours--tend to
be much more oriented toward the classroom than outdoors. The result is that
many young children are at risk of never developing positive attitudes and
feelings toward the natural environment or achieving a healthy degree of
competency on the environmental literacy continuum (as outlined by Disinger
& Roth, 1992). Attention to environmental education at the early childhood
level is proposed as a partial antidote to this concern.
The rationale for environmental education during
the early childhood years is based on two major premises. The first premise is
that children must develop a sense of respect and caring for the natural
environment during their first few years of life or be at risk for never
developing such attitudes (Stapp, 1978; Tilbury, 1994; Wilson, 1994).
The newly-emerging field of early childhood environmental education reflects
an increasing awareness that "environmental experience in the critical phase of
the early learning years can determine subsequent development in environmental
education" (Tilbury, 1994, p. 11) and that the preschool years may "prove to be
critical for the environmental education of the child" (Tilbury, 1994, p. 11).
The rationale for environmental education at the early childhood level is
also based on the premise that positive interactions with the natural
environment is an important part of healthy child development (Carson, 1956;
Cobb, 1977; Crompton & Sellar, 1981; Miles, 1986/87; Patridge, 1984; Sebba,
1991; Wilson, 1994) and that such interactions enhance learning and quality of
life over the span of one's lifetime (Wilson, 1994). Children who are close to
nature tend to relate to it as a source of wonder, joy, and awe. Their spirits
are nurtured by nature and they discover through it "sources of human
sensibility" (Wilson, 1992, p. 348).
Nature-related experiences tend to foster a child's emerging sense of
wonder--referred to by Plato as the source of knowledge and by Cobb (1977) as
our source of imagination. According to Cobb, it is through wonder that we come
to know the world. It's wonder--rather than books, words, or learning all the
facts--that provides the direction and impetus for environmental education in
GUIDELINES FOR PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT
opportunities for preschool children should be offered on an on-going rather
than a sporadic basis (Bixler, Carlisle, Hammittt, & Floyd, 1994; Gaylord,
1987). On-going environmental education programs for preschoolers, however, are
relatively scarce, and those that do exist tend to serve primarily middle- and
upper middle-class white families (Wilson, in press). This is unfortunate since
children living in low-income minority neighborhoods are more likely to be
affected negatively by environmental assaults (e.g., air pollution, noise,
congestion, solid wastes, etc.) (Harding & Holdren, 1993) and less likely to
have frequent positive interactions with the natural environment.
Environmental education for the early years should be based on a sense of
wonder and the joy of discovery. Consistent with this approach, the following
guidelines are proposed as a framework for developing and implementing an
environmental education program for preschool children.
1. Begin with simple experiences. Young children learn best through
experiences that relate to what is already familiar and comfortable. Thus, the
best place to start is in an environment that is similar to what they already
know. For example, focus on a single tree in a backyard or playground before
venturing into a heavily wooded area.
2. Provide frequent positive experiences outdoors. Because children learn
best through direct, concrete experiences, they need to be immersed in the
outdoor environment to learn about it. Optimally, the exposure should be
provided on an almost daily basis. A one-time trip to a park or nature preserve
will have very limited impact on young children. Far better to provide ongoing
simple experiences with the grass, trees, and insects in environments close to
home or school than to spend time and energy in making arrangements for field
trips to unfamiliar places the children may seldom visit. In addition to
investigating the elements of the natural world already present in an outdoor
setting, there are also many different ways to transform a typical playground
into an environmental yard. Start by adding bird feeders, wind socks, flower and
vegetable gardens, tree houses, rock piles, and logs, and then provide children
with tools for experimenting and investigating (e.g., magnifying glasses, water
hose and bucket, hoes, rakes, etc.).
3. Focus on "experiencing" versus "teaching." Because young children learn
through discovery and self-initiated activities, the role of an adult is to be
more a facilitator than a teacher. Learning among young children requires active
involvement: hands-on manipulation, sensory engagement, and self-initiated
explorations. Young children should not be expected to "watch and listen" for
any length of time, nor should they be expected to always follow the teacher's
lead or agenda. Far better to focus on what children find of interest than to
compete for attention through teacher-selected activities and materials.
4. Demonstrate a personal interest in and enjoyment of the natural world. A
teacher's expressions of interest in and enjoyment of the natural world are
critical to the success of an early childhood environmental education program.
It is the teacher's own sense of wonder, more than his or her scientific
knowledge, which will ignite and sustain a child's love of nature. Therefore,
even teachers with a minimal background in science need not be intimidated by
the thought of implementing an environmental education program for young
children. Feelings are more important than facts when it comes to introducing
young children to the world of nature. No one has stated this more clearly than
Rachel Carson (1956) when she wrote, "I sincerely believe that for the child,
and for the parent [or teacher] seeking to guide him, it is not half so
important to know as to feel" (p. 45).
5. Model caring and respect for the natural environment. Teachers should also
model caring and respect for the world of nature. Talking to children about
taking care of Earth is far less effective than demonstrating simple ways of
expressing care. Care and respect can be modeled through the gentle handling of
plants and animals in the classroom, establishing or maintaining outdoor
habitats for wildlife, attending to the proper disposal of trash, and recycling
or reusing as many materials as possible.
Young children tend to develop an emotional
attachment to what is familiar and comfortable to them. If they are to develop a
sense of connectedness with the natural world, they need frequent positive
experiences with the outdoors. Providing opportunities for such experiences and
sharing them with young children is the essence of what environmental education
is all about. Rachel Carson, in "The Sense of Wonder," was one of the first to
articulate the importance and characteristics of environmental education at the
early childhood level. In her words (Carson, 1956), "If a child is to keep alive
his inborn sense of wonder...he needs the companionship of at least one adult
who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the
world we live in" (p. 45). Environmental education for the early years focuses
primarily on young children exploring and enjoying the world of nature under the
guidance and with the companionship of caring adults.
Bixler, R., Carlisle D.L., Hammitt, W.E., & Floyd, M.F. (1994). Observed fears and discomforts among urban students on field
trips to wildland areas. The Journal of Environmental Education, 26 (1), 24-33.
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Carson, R. (1956). The sense of wonder. New York: Harper & Row.
Cobb, E. (1977). The ecology of imagination in childhood. New York: Columbia
Cohen, M. (1984). Prejudice against nature. Freeport, ME: Cobblesmith.
Crompton, J.L., & Sellar, C. (1981). Do outdoor education experiences
contribute to positive development in the affective domain? Journal of
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Disinger, J.F. & Roth, C. E. (1992). Environmental Literacy (ERIC Digest
EDO-SE-92-1). Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and
Environmental Education. [ED 351 201]
Gaylord, C. (1987). Training and education in relation to environmental
problems. Annual Review of Environmental Education, No. 1. Council of
Environmental Education. UK. [ED 300 273].
Harding, A. & Holdren, G.R. (1993). Environmental equity and the
environmental professional. Environmental Science Technology, 27, (10), 1990-93.
Miles, J.C. (1986/87). Wilderness as a learning place. Journal of
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Patridge, E. (1984, Summer). Nature as a moral resource. Environmental
Schicker, L. (1988). Planning for children and wildlife begins at home.
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Sebba, R. (1991). The landscapes of childhood. Environment and Behavior,
Stapp, W. (1978). An instructional model for environmental education.
Prospects, VIII(4), 495-507. [EJ 197 100].
Tilbury, D. (1994). The critical learning years for environmental education.
In R.A. Wilson (Ed.). Environmental Education at the Early Childhood Level.
Washington, DC: North American Association for Environmental Education, pp.
Wilson, E.O. (1992). The diversity of life. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press.
Wilson, R.A. (Ed.) (1994). Environmental education at the early childhood
level. Washington, DC: North American Association for Environmental Education.
Wilson, R.A. (in press). Environmental education programs for preschool
children. Journal of Environmental Education.
Wilson, R.A. (1993). Fostering a sense of wonder during the early childhood
years. Columbus, OH: Greyden Press.