Updated: Feb 3, 2020
As an environmental educator it's difficult not to get discouraged. The constant drip-drip of bad news about the state of the environment is impossible to ignore. Climate change, biodiversity collapse, sea level rise, ocean acidification, plastic waste and the list continues. Teaching children and youth about these formidable challenges can seem daunting, overwhelming and, at times, simply hopeless. Despite our best efforts, things just seem to be getting worse.
"Rather than worrying about what kind of planet we're leaving our children, it might be time to ask the opposite: what kind of children are we leaving behind for our planet?"
Flipping Environmental Education Upside Down
But could it be that we are thinking about this all wrong? Instead of dealing with reactions to problems and trying to solve environmental issues as they arise, it may be worthwhile to consider what sort of citizens we believe should populate the Earth. Rather than worrying about what kind of planet we're leaving our children, it might be time to ask the opposite: what kind of children are we leaving behind for our planet? Raising eco-literate and environmentally engaged citizens requires far more than just a few educators participating in this work. Rather it's the collective responsibility of all: each of us has a stake in fostering the stewards of tomorrow.
"A key aim of any 21st Century education system must surely be to create visionary changemakers and engaged citizens capable of creating a bright, sustainable future."
That's precisely why this blog exists. The goal is to empower and activate individuals and communities to become changemakers for a better world. But how do we chart the path to environmental stewardship? Is there a concrete way of getting there? Well, there might be.
How to Nurture Environmental Stewards
1. Pitched At the Right Level
We need to recognize that children of different ages respond to the environment in markedly different ways. Well-meaning educators may want to talk to small children about climate change and the impacts of a warming planet, but small children simply do not have the cognitive faculties to process such large and multi-dimensional issues. Effective learning requires pitching environmental education at the right level and in a way that engages children using a non-threatening, open and discovery-led approach.
2. Exposure to the Natural World
Most parents and teachers would agree that children need regular exposure to the natural world from a very early age through both unstructured outdoor play and more structured outdoor education. These early childhood experiences help connect children with nature and nurture the environmental stewards of the future.
In fact, a new peer reviewed study has shed further light on this. Researchers found that until the age of 11 children are highly open and receptive to nature-based, environmental education. However, beyond age 11 they found that children's connection to nature drops sharply and doesn’t recover until they reach 30. They appear to have identified the point that children fall out of love with nature.
More research is needed, although this has wide-reaching implications for their engagement with pro-environmental behaviours like recycling or buying eco-friendly products.
3. Integration of Sustainability in Schools
While there are many gaps in existing curriculum frameworks on sustainability issues (which urgently need to be addressed as put forward by the United Nations (see 'Shaping the Future We Want' 2014 Report), it makes sense for schools to maximize existing curriculum links whenever possible to ensure that learning is justified, focused and structured. Because sustainability relates to almost every topic and subject area in some way, connections to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be successfully integrated into learning in many cases, especially in Secondary subject areas.
In England, it's at the discretion of individual schools to include sustainability and global citizenship education into the statutory curriculum, and overall this presents both challenges and opportunities for educators. The good news is the UK-based National Association for Environmental Education has mapped out the inclusion of the SDGs into the existing curriculum framework, and this can be used as a helpful guide for schools in England to use. The bad news is that high-stakes standardized testing has taken priority in English schools in recent years, forcing many schools to re-prioritize and neglect other important aspects of learning.
Additionally, schools are the perfect learning ground for children to model good environmental behaviors and experiment with sustainability initiatives. Schools which fully embrace the green schools ethos provide opportunities for growth, problem solving and leadership, and this provides powerful learning opportunities for students to try new things and develop into leaders and changemakers in the school community. For examples of truly inspiring schools who have successfully embraced sustainability, I've previously written a series of in-depth and exciting case studies.
4. Wider Community Action
It's also important to recognize the difference between children who are simply environmentally aware and those who feel empowered to create change. A key aim of any 21st Century education system must surely be to create leaders and engaged citizens capable of creating a brighter future. The worst possible outcome would be that we create a new generation of young people who feel hopeless and depressed about the worsening environmental condition of our planet, but who are unwilling or poorly prepared to find solutions to the challenges we face.
Experiential education (or hands-on education) is one of the most powerful tools and approaches for creating environmental awareness and stewards for change. Outdoortopia's Cycle of Sustainability Action is a useful model for sparking change in our communities and cultivating the changemaker mindset. Without cultivating and encouraging young people to become active agents of change in the wider community, it's going to be very challenging to nurture tomorrow's environmental stewards.
A Better 21st Century World
With these key aspects of teaching and learning in place throughout compulsory schooling, we can create environmental stewards who are well-prepared for the future, knowledgeable about the sustainability agenda and capable of driving change for a better 21st Century world. Wider learning beyond the walls of the classroom must be given far greater importance in our schools as it is abundantly clear that "chalk and talk" no longer cuts it. Forward-thinking schools which prepare children for what's coming by getting them out in the real-world and exploring subjects or topics through experience-based learning will put their students at a big advantage for the future.
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