ERIC Identifier: ED372968
Publication Date: 1994-09-00
Author: Heimlich, Joe E.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Using the Child's Environment To Teach at Home and School.
The world of a child is the tangible, real world of the here and now. It is
difficult for children to extend ideas from the small, familiar world in which
they operate to the larger, abstract world beyond. Even adults envision distant
parts of the world based on their own experiences and prior learning.
Nevertheless, the global concepts of environmental education, the basic
principles of ecology, and the importance of environmental responsibility can be
instilled in a child without reference to faraway places. These ideas can all be
made concrete right where the child lives and goes to school.
BASIC PRINCIPLES OF ECOLOGY
One of the fundamental tenets
of ecology is that all activities have by-products. In environmental education,
it is understood that this tenet applies to all activities of nature, both
natural and human-induced. Some of these by-products are called "pollution." Though pollution tends to have a negative connotation, not all pollution
necessarily affects the environment adversely (Botkin and Keller, 1982).
Ivan Illich, an environmental philosopher, suggests that most of the problems
of humans and the environment are a consequence of a society originally designed
to protect people from the environment, improve their material circumstances,
and enhance their freedom (Gardels and Snell, 1990). Yet, to be good for humans,
the environment must be compatible with the unchangeable needs of human nature.
Because people are relatively unable to adjust biologically to nature, we must
change our immediate environment instead (Dubos, 1971).
Another tenet of ecology is that, as a part of nature, humans share with
other animals the basic requirements of food, water, air, and habitat (Odum,
1959). The survival of humans as a species requires a habitat that will support
human life, and life itself is a delicate tension between consumption and
conservation (Rolston, 1986).
Although the relationship people have with nature has changed over time, it
is the technological advances in human living, and not the choices by which we
live, that have had the most significant impact on the environment (Guthrie,
1972). Because we spend a major portion of our time at home, it is instructive
to examine the "home environment" and discover how the human activity of
protecting ourselves from the environment, improving our quality of life, and
providing increasing freedom contribute to larger environmental concerns.
WHAT IS THE "HOME"?
The word ecology is derived from two
Greek words: oikos, meaning house, and logos, meaning thought or study. So,
ecology means the study of the home. Often we refer to an extended home such as
a habitat, ecosystem, or the biosphere, but for this discussion, home will
literally be the house, apartment, or whatever the residence of a person might
Our homes are part of what we call the "constructed" or built environment.
Technology has enabled us to build homes that are tightly sealed to be energy
efficient. Increasingly our homes are constructed of synthetic materials; air is
heated, cooled, and mechanically circulated; and lighting is often not natural.
Modern homes often retain internally what might otherwise flow into nature and
be dissipated. There are materials and substances under, in, or used in the home
that are potentially hazardous (Howe, 1988). The risks to human health from
pollutants in the home are often difficult to assess, and scientists are
concerned that more research is needed both on exposure to pollutants indoors
and on the toxicity of those pollutants (The Conservation Foundation, 1987).
Because we do so much of our living at home, we can explore issues of how we
consume, what we use, and how we dispose of what remains through looking at the
home. Everything needed for exploring the global environment is present in the
home. All we need to do is explore the home environment and then transfer what
we learn to the rest of nature. What are the requirements for shelter that
humans share with other animals? How is the habitat for a fish different from
the habitat for a human? How are they the same? Do birds create waste? What do
they do with it? Why can't humans do the same? Questions like these can link
ideas learned at home to the larger world.
TEACHING ENVIRONMENT THROUGH THE HOME
We can use the home
to teach not only about human needs, but also about how humans depend upon the
rest of nature for survival. One way to structure our home discovery is to look
at issues that are of environmental concern globally. Some of the most important
of these issues are outlined below .
Energy. Concerns surrounding energy and the home environment include issues
of fossil fuel use, alternative energy sources--such as nuclear, solar, and wind
sources--electromagnetic fields (EMFs), and energy conservation. Our world is
dependent upon energy from the sun to survive; our modern lives are dependent
upon energy in many forms to provide the standard of living we have come to
enjoy in terms of appliances, resources, entertainment, travel, and work.
Some ways in which adults can help children appreciate the importance of
energy in our lives are to identify where energy is used in the home, trace the
path of energy from the natural resource to the home, explore alternative
sources of energy, try some energy reduction activities, and look for sources of
energy loss in the home. What about an evening in which no electricity, battery,
or fuel powered energy source is used? A scavenger hunt for uses of energy in
various forms is a great way to begin to look at energy and our dependence upon
it. There are also kits on electricity and energy available commercially and
from local power companies. These could provide a solid scientific foundation as
you and your children explore the larger issues of energy generation and
Water. In the home, as well as in the community, the primary concerns related
to water are those of water quality and water management. Further issues in home
water use include the question of natural water management systems versus human
construction (water runoff, water shed), and xeroscaping, which is the use of
plants that are low maintenance when it comes to water.
Some activities that can be done with children at home or in the school
include measuring water use in the bathroom and kitchen; comparing tastes of
different waters; constructing erosion experiments using various plants and bare
soil outdoors or potted plants and pans indoors; and discovering the properties
of water such as solubility, rate of evaporation, and solid/liquid
transformation. An interesting approach to investigating human/nature
interactions is to explore what happens to precipitation around the home and
contrasting that with what would happen to the same precipitation if there were
no buildings, streets, driveways, or parking areas.
Air. Radon and other gases that migrate into homes are of major concern in
some parts of the United States. Indoor air pollution, including tobacco smoke
and perfumes, as well as the indoor air pollution created by dust mites, skin,
hair, and other natural causes, is of increasing interest to environmentalists
and health officials. Some other sources of air pollution in the child's world
include carbon or sulfur emissions and other contributors to acid rain that
result from the burning of fuels to heat or cool the house and to run engines;
greenhouse gases; and global climatic change.
There are items easily available in the home or at school to help a child
discover the importance and role of air in the environment. Placing a plastic
bag over the leaves of a weed could show how plants require air as much as
animals, including humans. Using inflatable toys or balloons, games can be
played to measure lung capacity. Burning candles in jars with and without lids
illustrates the need for oxygen to keep a fire burning.
Household chemicals. Central to the concern about household chemicals is the
chemophobia in our society. Though we rely heavily upon chemicals to make our
lives easier, too often we do not understand how they work and are ignorant of
the impact and possible interactions of various compounds. Other concerns
include proper use versus abuse and proper disposal versus disposal that
threatens the environment. Again, a great way to begin to explore household
chemicals is to conduct a home survey or scavenger hunt. Did the survey include
medicines? Automotive products? Art supplies? Personal grooming products?
An excellent activity for parents and children is to compare the
effectiveness of homemade cleaning products with those commercially made. (The
results may surprise you!) Other activities include exploring traits that make
an item hazardous (toxic, reactive, corrosive, and/or ignitable) through
non-hazardous experiments, such as salting lettuce leaves to see how cells die
through toxicity; mixing vinegar and baking soda to see a "reaction"; placing
nails in a cola beverage can to illustrate corrosivity; and relighting a candle
without touching the wick with the burning match to demonstrate ignitability.
Nature and humans. The home is also a wonderful place in which to nurture a
growing awareness of our dependence upon and relationship to nature. Try to find
something in the home or the classroom that does not rely upon nature to provide
the original resource for creating the material. How long is the list?
An excellent start on understanding this relationship comes from creating
categories of natural and human-constructed items in the home. Older children
may also be able to subdivide the human-constructed list according to the
primary natural resource used in the product. Houseplants, pets, or even insects
inside the home provide a wealth of opportunity to study, observe, and
hypothesize about nature and then compare observations with human behavior.
Ironically, the constructed environment is constructed using nature to protect
humans from nature! What a wealth of discoveries about the global environment
are literally inside our front doors.
LIVING AND THE QUALITY OF LIFE--CONSUMERISM
of ecologically responsible living would be complete without a note on
consumerism and individual responsibility. Most environmental problems arise
from the deepest constructs of western life--physical accoutrements, societal
mores, cultural traditions, and personal habits. Understanding and responding to
environmental problems require an individual to subscribe to a theory, or a set
of well considered beliefs and values, about the natural world and then to
practice healthful behaviors related to society, self, and the environment
Many advocates for environmental change suggest that it is the consumerist
pattern of our society that is leading us into trouble. We often consume
products for the sake of consumption, rather than considering carefully what we
buy, how it is packaged, and why we buy it. One way of initiating individual
change in consumption is to rediscover that what people buy is often not what
they actually want--what they want is what results from having what they
purchase (Durning, 1993). For example, most people buy cars in order to get
places easily or for the status gained from the type of vehicle owned, not for
the sake of owning the car itself. People buy cleaning products for their homes
in order to make cleaning the home easier, not to own three more containers of
chemicals. If we reconsider why we consume, we can often discover alternatives
that may be more "environmentally friendly." Further, the more operationally
literate each of us becomes in terms of understanding environmental issues, the
stronger becomes our sense of personal investment in and responsibility for both
prevention and remediation of our local environments (Roth, 1992), starting
first in the home or school--where our future citizens live, work, and play.
ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION RESOURCES FOR FAMILIES
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