Climate Change ² Positive Strategies for Introducing, Exploring and Empowering Young Children

Tess Michaels ² Tessa Rose Playspace and Landscape Design 0416 565297

The development of an environmental ethic shouldn·t be left to chance ² educators ask ´when is it appropriate to tell children that they have a role in saving the Earth? When they are five, seven, eight or earlier?µ What do you think? Compare children in the city with children in the country

There is no simple answer ² there are many educational theories and beliefs with regards to this topic but in essence, it depends on the length and breadth of children·s own direct personal experience with the effects of climate change.

Connection to Nature
Many believe that it is the connection to nature that we need to be fostering to ensure a love and connection for the environment and therefore the Earth.

In early childhood, asking children to help ´Save the Earthµ when they have little in depth understanding of what that really means and placing this burden on them when they really are incapable of ´fixingµ the Earth is not all that useful.

Connection to Nature (con·t)
We as adults may feel we have all damaged the Earth in major ways, therefore we want children to be better stewards of and for the environment!
This can often oversimplify what saving the Earth and climate change really means and what it is connected to. Children may also become fearful and feel helpless in terms of the environment which basically works against encouraging a positive environmental ethic.

Connection to Nature (con·t)
It is important that we empower children in our actions and programs on ´saving the Earthµ and the environment, rather than create situations where children become fearful of environmental tragedies ² what (Sobel, 1996) refers to as ecophobia. The result is an alienation from nature and not a connection to it which is what is needed as the basis for caring about and for the environment and such issues as sustainability, global warming and climate change.

Fear of Nature

Fear is part of the de-naturing of childhood. While real dangers do exist in the natural world the threat is greatly exagerrated. (Louv, 2006)
This fear gets in the way of positive interactions with nature.

Why Children Fear Nature
In Native American cultures plants and animals are referred to as ´our brothers and sistersµ, in our culture plants and animals are linked with words such as pests, weeds, etc and we use bug bombs and sprays to get rid of them!  In our language with young children we are often confirming the negative and fearful myth that exists about nature. We say things like ´Don·t dig in the dirt, it·s messyµ ´Don·t play in the weeds or with those plants you might hurt yourselfµ ´Don·t touch that.. It looks slimyµ ´Don·t go outdoors ² it·s too cold, wet, hot, etc, and you could get SICK!µ What language could we use to encourage children·s connection to nature? 

Why Children Fear Nature (con·t)
Not only through our language but our actions do we perpetuate the nature myth. For example people spend 95% of their time indoors, we have virtual pets now instead of real ones, some visitors to national parks have actually suggested spraying the wilderness to get rid of insects and pests and when on holidays we would rather shop than explore the outdoors!

These messages, attitudes and behaviours contribute to a serious detachment and fear of nature

The Disappearance of Nature from Early Childhood Environments
Children fear what they are unfamiliar with and in today·s early childhood environments, nature has been almost stripped bare from everyday play.

We now have masses of wet pour and softfall with the obligatory piece of equipment in a sanitized and over safe environment and wonder why children are not interested in the Earth and nature. Why have our playspaces become this way?

In terms of teaching environmental education at the early childhood level, it is extremely important so that in some way we can diminish children·s fear. This then creates the necessary connections to nature that will serve children in the future as a basis for understanding and valuing the importance of the Earth

By helping young children know and relate to the soul-making aspects of the natural world, we connect them to enduring sources of strength, wonder and joy. (Rachel Carson, 1956) Once children begin to love and appreciate the Earth, they will care about its wellbeing and therefore develop an environmental ethic.

Small Group Work Having looked at some examples of small natural playspaces, think about your children·s centre and the outdoor environment. How is a connection to nature being fostered? What additional ideas could you introduce or extend to further enhance children·s connection to nature in everyday early childhood programs?

The early childhood years offer tremendous opportunities to foster the child·s understanding and appreciation of the environment and to develop a lifelong commitment to caring for the natural world. The premise that introducing children to nature in early childhood will lead to more environmentally responsible decisions in later life is supported by research.

Research (con·t)
Research reflects that the 2 top factors leading to a commitment to the environment are: 1. 2.

Frequent and positive experiences with nature early in life At least one adult who shares the children·s interest in the environment Information alone is not enough to change behaviours towards the environment - an appreciation and connection to the natural world are far more motivating in getting children and therefore them as adults, to care about the Earth.

´Fostering a positive environmental ethic at the early childhood level can serve as a critical step in developing an environmentally literate and concerned citizenµ. (Wilson, 2008)

What More Can We Do«
Consider: u Protect and conserve landscape features with high educational and ecological significance such as woodlands, streams, rock outcroppings and mature trees, etc, especially in areas where child care centres are constructed u Children·s play areas should include natural elements that attract wildlife like birds, butterflies, frogs, snails and worms, etc. They should also provide natural features that allow children to feel and interact with nature such as digging areas, creek beds, etc

What More Can We Do..
u Create gardens for children and PLAN for long and uninterrupted outdoor play times as the environment serves as the ´third teacherµ (Reggio Emilia) If we want children to be sensitive and interested in the world of nature and subsequently care for the Earth, then that·s the way we need to be. Rachel Carson (1956), states that the adults own sense of wonder ² more than his or her scientific knowledge ² is what will ignite and sustain a child·s love of nature. Talking to children about caring for the Earth is far less effective than demonstrating simple ways of expressing care ² handle plants carefully and gently, recycle, reuse, composting, worm farms, plant a variety of native plants and use only as much water or materials as needed


What More Can We Do..
u Avoid programs that emphasise the loss of species, polluted air and water and other environmental disasters. Still some children may have specific experiences related to these ´tragediesµ. In particular the current drought situation in regions of Australia. If so, then the key is to acknowledge personal experience and come to these tragedies with ways that make children feel like they can take some action, however, small that may be. See them as participants with legitimate ideas, questions and responses. This will evolve through documenting children·s understandings, feelings, ideas and thoughts throughout the ´tellingµ and ´exploringµ of the ´tragedyµ that effects them directly.

What More Can We Do..
u Start with simple and familiar experiences first for some children who may have a fear about nature and the environment. Ideas such as watching a bean seed sprout before planting an edible garden Children need to be involved in sharing and doing rather than learning and watching. Engage children in their senses to become more in touch with the natural world by crawling or rolling on the Earth, touching selected natural items such as flowers, stones, etc. This immerses children in the world of nature and develops the sixth sense ² an intuition to feel the natural world more deeply and personally


These early connections will form a basis for the future ² children will grow into young adults with an affinity for the environment and the Earth and then finally into adults who are able to make informed decisions about the Earth including climate change, global warming and sustainability.

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the Earth are never alone or weary of life. ~ Rachel Carson ~