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For many this word implies the ability to read and write. However, the concept of literacy has evolved. A broader definition is a knowledge and competence in a specific area. Knowledge and competence. We might interpret knowledge as having facts, information, and experience with a subject. What about competency? It may imply a deeper ability than mere knowledge alone. We might say capability, proficiency, expertise, adeptness, skill, prowess, mastery. What, then, is Environmental Literacy, how can it be taught, and why is important now?
The National Environmental Education Foundation’s Environmental Literacy Report defines an environmentally literate person as someone who “… makes informed decisions concerning the environment; is willing to act on these decisions to improve the well-being of other individuals, societies, and the global environment; and participates in civic life”.
(NEEF, 2015) Using this definition, we can see that environmental literacy could be taught in a traditional classroom during classes of Science, Social Studies, Civics, and History. While researching this essay, I found many resources which teachers could use in a classroom, however, I want to go beyond merely teaching knowledge.
I want to explore this idea of competency and how children might master the skills needed to be environmental stewards during Earth’s sixth mass extinction. How do we teach a child that the planet is changing at such a massive rate that evidence shows a “conservative analysis of as much as 50% of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, amounting to a massive anthropogenic erosion of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services essential to civilization” (Ceballos, Ehrlich, & Dirzo, 2017)
In her article, Education for Sustainability, Susan Santone writes, “Sustainability education envisions citizens not only as voting and obeying the law, but also as actively contributing to bringing about a sustainable world.
Sustainability education seeks to answer the question, What kind of education do we need to create the future we want?” (Santone, 2003/2004) Certainly, we can use curriculum to change the emphasis on the environment from “consumable” resources to ones of sustainability and protection. Curriculum is easy enough to find and implement. The Yes! Magazine website has an amazing section just for teachers on how to build a robust economy, healthy planet, and just world for all. But, is classroom instruction going far enough? How can teachers help children develop an environmental conscious and become stewards of a sustainable future if all their experiences are spent inside of a classroom? I submit that knowledge is not enough. Children need to experience nature on a personal basis in order to become environmental leaders and protectors.
In the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, environmental psychologist, Louise Chawla, surveyed environmental leaders “who attributed their commitment to the environment to a combination of two sources in childhood or adolescence: many hours spent outdoors in ‘keenly remembered’ wild or semi-wild places, and a mentoring adult who taught respect for nature”. (Louv 2005) This has assuredly been my own experience, as well as my children’s.
When our children were the ages of 9 and 7 we sold our 2-acre homestead in rural Arizona, moved into a bus and traveled down to Florida to spend the last months/years with my ailing Father-In-Law. Knowing that I did not want to live in an “RV park”, I sought out state parks and wilderness areas for us to live and work. Our first stay was at a historical site in Estero, FL that had been established in 1894 as one of the first intentional communities in the US. The last members of said community had deeded the property to the state in 1961. What remains of the once vibrant community are 11 beautifully maintained historic structures that date from 1882-1920 and landscaped grounds including unique ornamental exotic vegetation from throughout the world. Including a field of pineapples, mango trees, lime trees, and wild grapes. The park features a hiking trail along the river and a running trail along the park boundary that takes you through a pine flatwoods habitat. The river is a brackish tidal waterway which leads to the Estero Bay approximately 3 miles west. It was in these woods and on this river that my children spent hours, with friends and park rangers, exploring and learning. They found fallen limbs and fashioned walking sticks, they even used a magnifying lens to burn their “magic words” and initials into the sticks.
They created a secret “forest” language that was transcribed into a handmade book that was kept closely guarded and spoken of in hushed whispers, so as not to anger the “river god”. They wore woven wreathes in their hair, made dyes from plants and became feral, in the best sense of the word. The 8 months spent there were magical, indeed. Our next home was made along the Peace River in Arcadia, FL. with 165 acres of wilderness to explore. Here, my children learned of sugar sand and the creatures that live along Florida rivers. They rowed over the tops of alligators in a leaky boat and climbed trees to explore the abandoned nests of ospreys. They gathered Spanish moss and used it to conceal “fairy houses”, gathered wild oranges, and laughed as squirrels chucked nuts at marauding cats. They led friends to the river’s edge to scoop sand into strainers, hoping to find yet another ancient shark’s tooth. Here, they also learned of the damage that cannot be undone by rowdy ATV riders that descend upon and destroy the habitat.
Being so deeply immersed in nature, witnessing the spender and destruction of their environment, led my children become environmental activists in their own right. They researched the ways that humans are contributed to the current, global extinction and vowed to take steps to lesson their ecological footprint. They became vegan because of their kinship with animals and the many ways that factory farming of animals is destroying our environment. They created classes for fellow camping kids to teach them about recycling and permaculture. They collected trash along the river and estuaries so that the wildlife would not mistake it as food and be killed by its consumption. They began to use the words “sustainability” and “carbon footprint” when talking with adults so that they were contributing to raising the global consciousness of environmentalism. My children, like the environmental leaders discussed in Last Child in the Woods, developed this environmental consciousness due to the many hours spent in wild places and with the mentoring adults who taught them a deep reverence and respect for nature.
Because my children were homeschooled, they were not confined to a “classroom education” of nature. Their knowledge and competency of environmental literacy was profoundly shaped by hours and hours spent outside. How can that be translated into, and embraced by, mainstream school administrators? One way may be by appealing to their desire to increase testing scores.
“Studies show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of experiential education produce significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts and math.” One 2005 study by the California Department of Education found that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent. “By studying science, math and related subjects through outdoor experiences, students can connect to their local environment and become stewards of their community’s natural resources.” (WILD, 2007)
Perhaps if we place the focus on immersing youth in natural environments with the goal of inspiring future leaders in science, technology, and environmental sustainability, schools will be more willing to see this as an opportunity to expand their STEM curriculum. Brooke Furge, an education specialist who directs Discovering the Science of the Environment for the Center for Earth and Environmental Science at IUPUI said “Research tells us that in order to develop scientifically and technologically skilled students, we must engage them through inquiry-based programs like DSE. The focus is on immersing youth in natural environments with the goal of inspiring future leaders in science, technology, and environmental sustainability. (Turning, 2010)
The need is great, and the time is now. Schools must find ways to get children out into their natural environment if we hope to create leaders who will develop the skills and create solutions to the massive problems that humanity has ever faced. Recycling programs and plastic bag bans are great but unlikely to save us from serious impacts of global climate change. Large issues demand large solutions. Environmental education must nurture the social awareness and engagement necessary to convert words and ideas into measurable action. Environmental literacy is no longer a choice. Every human being must become an environmentalist now, our future and our children’s future depend on it. Humanity must maintain a habitable Earth. Afterall, there is only one. (Saylen and Blumstein, 2011)
While my heart is heavy with the prospect of a world void of more than 50% of its natural inhabitants, I remain hopeful. Human beings are capable of great destruction and of great creation. If each of us is able to find a way to embrace our fellow earth inhabitants, make the needed changes in how we view our amazing planet, and become the “nurturing adult” who helps children to see nature with new eyes, we can forge ahead as a more enlightened species. One who insures there is room for all of Earth’s creatures. One with an environmental conscious that sees not resources to be exploited for profit, but to be protected for life.
As a parent and an educator, I couldn’t agree more with American botanist, Luther Burbank who, in 1907, wrote In The Training of the Human Plant, “Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hay fields, pine cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets: and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best of his education.”
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