Of all the reading I’ve done in the field of teaching and tree-hugging, David Sobel’s Beyond Ecophobia is one of two or three titles that I return to regularly, one that has profoundly influenced my thinking. It’s a slim little volume, all of 45 pages, that asks some important questions about environmental education. Here’s an excerpt from a magazine article/summary where he outlines his concerns:
What really happens when we lay the weight of the world’s environmental problems on eight and nine year-olds already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature?
The crux of the issue is the developmental appropriateness of environmental curricula. One problem we have in schools is premature abstraction – we teach too abstractly, too early. Mathematics educators have recently realized that premature abstraction was one of the major causes of math phobia among children in the primary grades. Unable to connect the signs and symbols on the paper with the real world, many children were turning off to math. Mathematics instruction has been reinvigorated in the last two decades through the use of concrete materials (such as cuisinaire rods, fraction bars, and Unifix cubes) and the grounding of math instruction in the stuff and problems of everyday life. The result has been the turning of the tide against math phobia.
Perhaps to be replaced by ecophobia – a fear of ecological problems and the natural world. Fear of oil spills, rainforest destruction, whale hunting, acid rain, the ozone hole, and Lyme disease. Fear of just being outside. If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems beyond their understanding and control, then I think we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength.
In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn distancing techniques, ways to cut themselves off from the pain. My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum will end up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused, and they just don’t want to have to deal with it.
I propose that there are healthy ways to foster environmentally aware, empowered students. We can cure the malaise of ecophobia with ecophilia –supporting children’s biological tendency to bond with the natural world.
And then, right at the end, this single sentence that has resonated with me for years:
If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.
I thought about all of this at the end of last week when Will came home from school talking about the problem of plastics accumulating in our oceans, sharing details about how plastic debris can be found in seafood or how, in the vast mid-ocean eddy currents, smaller fragments outnumber plankton.
Is this an important topic? Well, yes, of course. If I could, I’d make every adult in the world watch this eye-opening TED Talk video. But would I show it to 8-year-old kids? I know what David Sobel would say. To his credit, Will has biophilia strong enough that this little bit of grim news isn’t going to snuff it. His response has been one of earnest concern, not distancing and disengagement. (Perhaps he’ll help me lean on Belinda to stop buying bottled water for the kids to drink in our backyard.) And I give credit to his teacher (she’s just generally awesome) for taking the class down to Whetstone Creek to do a little clean-up, hands-on service learning encouraging a sense of possibility and empowerment where there might otherwise be despair and withdrawal. Nonetheless, I agree with Sobel that a steady diet of this kind of environmental awareness, no matter how well intentioned, cannot be developmentally appropriate for kids his age. For my own part, I don’t breathe a word to the boys of my profound disquiet and worry about environmental trends.
Instead, I just keep taking them outside, doing what I can to instill a biophilia durable enough to encourage and sustain engagement in the future. Over Labor Day weekend we made a visit to the Newman Wetlands Center, one of my favorite nature getaways in the Atlanta metro area.
Walking the half-mile boardwalk trail, we saw fish, turtles, snakes, and a pair of whitetail deer at surprisingly close quarters. Preserved in the mud, there were all sorts of intriguing animal tracks to speculate about. But the big attraction at mid-afternoon in late summer has to be the dragonflies, a bewildering and bewitching diversity of Odonata. We came equipped with binoculars and a good field guide and learned to identify Blue Dasher, Eastern Pondhawk (male and female), Common Whitetail (male and female), and Common Green Darner. All three of us brought our journals to record our findings and impressions. And all three of us came away feeling the love. At my boys’ ages, that’s the most important outcome for environmental education. Even if it can’t be easily assessed by standardized tests.