Tuesday, February 5, 2013

An Environmental Educator's Response to David Sobel's "Look, Don't Touch"

Some readers may remember a somewhat controversial article that appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion magazine. In the article, Look, Don't Touch: The Problem with Environmental Education, David Sobel explores the idea that traditional environmental education programs--the type that are offered at the many parks, nature centers and science museums in North Carolina--have become overly sanitized and exhibit a type of "environmental puritanicalism" that prevents children from truly experiencing the natural world around them. Sobel goes as far as to suggest that "perhaps even environmental education is one of the causes of children’s alienation from nature."
Sobel continues:

Much of environmental education today has taken on a museum mentality, where nature is a composed exhibit on the other side of the glass. Children can look at it and study it, but they can’t do anything with it. The message is: Nature is fragile. Look, but don’t touch. Ironically, this “take only photographs, leave only footprints” mindset crops up in the policies and programs of many organizations trying to preserve the natural world and cultivate children’s relationships to it.

If you have not read the entire article (or need a refresher) it is still available on the Orion website, which also includes an audio clip of an interview with Sobel that is also well worth a listen.
David Sobel is a well-known and well-respected academic, teacher and author in the environmental education community. While he makes some very thought provoking points in the article and certainly offers a valid challenge to the environmental education community, some North Carolina environmental educators felt the article unfairly characterized the profession and many of the environmental education centers that offer programming.

One such environmental educator is Camilla Wilcox, who recently retired after an active thirty-two year career as an environmental educator for young children. She was so moved by Sobel's article that she decided to send the following response to Orion. As of today, it has not been published by Orion, so it is posted below in its entirety with Camilla's permission.

However, this is more than a response to a magazine article. Camilla poignantly addresses some of the core reasons as to why children do not roam and explore nature as they once did, provides encouragement and strategies for the dedicated environmental educators in the field and also offers a challenge to academics, parents, caregivers and classroom teachers. Camilla feels that it all may come down to one question: "What do children want?"

To the editors of Orion:

I retired in July of 2012 after thirty-two years as curator of education for Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I was in charge of school field trip and summer programs. Most of the children with whom I worked were in grades K through 5. This is my perspective on the article by David Sobel in the July/August issue of Orion.

When I became curator of education at a public garden in 1980, I was not long past my own idyllic childhood years, which were much like those so lovingly described by the majority of the respondents to the Sobel article, nor were the parents, teachers, and volunteers with whom I worked. There was no difference between the desires of teachers who brought their students for field trips and the education volunteers, who led them on walks through the gardens, meadows, woods, and greenhouses. We partnered to provide opportunities for children to make connections between the science of books and the tangible, intricate workings of the natural world. Most of the children we saw then were much like we had been at their age. They also played freely in their neighborhoods or did chores around the farm after school. When they came to us, they felt at home in nature. They knew that the field trip was an extension of the classroom and that they would learn information that would help them understand nature and science better. Communication flowed easily among all of us. Children did not need to attend weekend or summer programs because they generated their own adventure and exploration at home.

Over the next three decades, I created and directed a multitude of seasonally oriented, science-based field trip programs; in later years, I added weekend, after school, and summer programs. Working with hundreds of thousands of teachers, children, and parents over the years, I witnessed first-hand the crumbling of the "natural" childhood. I saw one generation become less knowledgeable about the natural world than the one before. Paralyzing fear of the outdoors gradually replaced the comfortable curiosity and sense of adventure that children had once known. Science instruction in the classroom became fragmented into activities that could be taught from a kit, regardless of the instructor’s breadth of knowledge or understanding of context. As time went on, new teachers and young parents often did not know the most basic facts about the natural world, but they still trusted that they could turn imparting this information over to us. They learned from us, alongside their children. Then, school budgets tightened and pressures on the school day increased. The nature field trip became expendable. In short order, some of this nation’s finest nature educators, our volunteers, were left standing at trailside, with very few children to lead.

As nature has been shoved into smaller and smaller places, so has the nature education of children, and so, in a sense, Mr. Sobel is right to place the responsibility of environmental education on the few who staff the parks and public gardens; after all, they often toil within places that are the last vestiges of once-vibrant ecosystems, and they are among the very few who are willing to dedicate their lives to learning about nature and to sharing their knowledge. But passing knowledge of the natural world on through generations cannot be the sole responsibility of environmental education specialists. There are so few of them; they simply cannot be everywhere at once.

If ever there has been an educational emergency, this is it: To very quickly bring an entire population—not just the children, but everyone—up to a high level of awareness of the natural world. The most vital and basic information about the earth’s functions is being lost at a velocity that would have been unthinkable only thirty-two years ago. Without very quick action, the loss will be irretrievable. Many of those who are anxious to superimpose their own memories on children of today, to grant them the luxury that we had to let the world and its wonders unfold in our consciousness slowly over long childhood years, don’t seem to realize that while they debate, wish, long, and wring their hands over what to do, the earth is out of time. Decisions that must be made now and in the very near future must be made by people who are informed about the natural world and understand the consequences of human actions on it. Metaphorically speaking, the boat that carries our generation is drifting farther and farther away from those children so contentedly building forts on the shore. The children may be reaching out to us for guidance now, but pretty soon they’ll be so involved in their play that they won’t even look up. And we’ll be gone. Then where will they be?

If we reflect on the enormous task of educating children about nature, I think we can agree that it is too great for a few dedicated people to bear alone and that, in fact, children’s learning is the responsibility of an entire population. But how can we, as a society, possibly develop a successful nature education scheme that applies to each place and is meaningful to each child? Every one of us occupies a more or less unique habitat, and each of the children who needs our help is also unique. To compound the problem, most adults now possess a very bare amount of nature knowledge. What do they have to offer?

There is no handbook, list of activities, or prescription that will solve this dilemma, but I propose that there is a philosophy that will serve us all well. It is based on this question: What do children want? I thought about this question constantly while walking with them in the woods and working alongside them in the garden; talking with their parents, grandparents, and teachers; and watching them participate in activities that I planned for them. It’s important to note that the question is not, What facts to children need to know? Quite frankly, I’m not sure anyone could come up with a list of facts that would suffice for all places, situations, and challenges and that will still be relevant in twenty years. But thinking about what children want acknowledges that they have desires that arise from deep in their souls and that these desires must be met before learning can begin.

Although admittedly it is somewhat easier for me and other environmental educators to answer a child’s question factually, it should be remembered that we haven’t always had the knowledge we have now. What we have done, and what anyone can do, is to retain or regain a sense of amazement at the intricacy of nature, to have a driving curiosity and a desire for learning throughout our lives. By keeping the question, What do children want? in mind, anyone who truly believes that nature education is vital to the future well-being of the planet will be able to educate and guide.

This is what I have learned about what present-day children want and thoughts on how we can help them:

 They want your attention. It’s commonly known that most families today experience some form or degree of chaos at home. It has been firmly established that children are not free to roam outside. It may not surprise you to learn that it’s rare now for someone in the home to take a child for a ramble in a garden or woods. Then, you might ask, who listens to their observations about nature, corrects their mistaken assumptions, applauds the baby steps they take on the way to making connections? Who makes sure that they are aware of their responsibility for life on earth, as you do with your children? At school, the "teachable moment," once pounced upon by the creative teacher, who knew how to engage students and broaden their education, is largely gone, replaced by strictly controlled time slots devoted to measurable tasks. Then, who hears what they think about topics outside of the lesson at hand and thoughtfully answers the seemingly unrelated question? The moment when a child looks into your eyes and knows that you are looking back, listening, and truly aware of him, is irreplaceable in any place or time, but especially so when you are examining nature together, when the child’s eyes open to the world around him.

 They want adventure outside the school walls. Many children essentially live at school, at least five days a week. They begin their day with an early breakfast in the cafeteria and end with dinner there. For better or worse, they are taught and cared for at school. The grounds, often described as similar to prison yards, do not invite exploration. There are no plants in the classrooms. The air is an even temperature, and there are no insects. Imagine a child in this bare, recirculated life and then think carefully about how going outside the school grounds, even for a short time, to explore nature ignites imagination and creates indelible memories.

 They want you to see them for who they are. They are children of today, not yesterday. Thanks to the often maligned, ever-present technology, they know a great deal more than we did at their age. This is their starting point, and this is where we should meet them. The "facts" they present to us may seem confused because of the global template of most of their information sources, but clarification by a knowledgeable adult helps them understand and appreciate the uniqueness of their local environment. Information shared with them may be broad, and scientific technicalities may be omitted until they can understand them, but it doesn’t have to be simplified. Oversimplification does not serve them well. They understand that the world is complex, and they are fascinated with details.

 They want to be treated with respect. They know the difference between play and learning. Because of the way they have been raised, they expect that all of their activities will be planned and that their time will be used appropriately, whether it be for a soccer game or a field trip. They know when they are being manipulated into participating in an activity that is planned to produce an expected, limited outcome or to fill an available time slot. Because children are generally kind, they’ll go along with almost any activity an adult suggests, even if it insults their intelligence, in order to please her, but they thrive when activities are based on a foundation of respect for their intellectual capacity.

 They want to know that there is order in the world, that people before them have discovered it, and that it can be understood. Nature is overwhelming to children who ordinarily see very little of it, and fear of the unknown is a very common reaction to a first visit to a public garden or
park. Countless times I watched children’s fear of entering the garden or woods disappear after a walk with a kind, comforting adult who helped them look beyond the vast wall of earth and sky and focus on the small, observable pieces that fit together to create it.

 They want to understand science; they like to know why and how scientists study the earth; how they recognize, analyze, and solve problems; and they like to think of themselves as scientists. Reynolda Gardens, where I worked, encompasses 130 acres that were once covered with forest, but the land has been changed by multiple strata of human activity. While focusing on such things as commonalities of plant families; learning which animals live in each forest layer; and seeing how wind and water change the face the earth, leaders help children learn about nature in its purest form—how it "ought" to be. Building on this knowledge, children are able to distinguish changes that humans have caused by bringing in invasive plants and animals; fragmenting habitat; and damaging geology. In a very short time, they come to see how the earth has been harmed by human intervention and what might help it recover in the future. Leaders encourage every observation that reflects scientific thinking. But how can a person without a forest preserve or scientific knowledge help a child think in this way? Think of it this way: Every single place that humans inhabit was once as it "ought" to be and has been changed. It’s easy enough to separate the world of parking lots from the world of woods. Most of the education volunteers are not scientists. They are ordinary people, who feel a commitment to share nature with children. So they learn to sketch a flower to find out how it is put together; record the activity of birds and insects in a garden; conduct an experiment on ant species; use a field guide. They write down facts that they learn and questions they want answered. They read observations about nature to children and help them write some of their own. They show the children that the most important part of thinking in a scientific way is having the desire to learn. They understand the power of close observation and live Albert Einstein’s advice: Never stop questioning. With this attitude, anyone—not just trained scientists—can help children understand science.

 They want their own perspectives and boundaries to be respected. They may or may not want to touch snakes, roll down hills, build structures, put on plays, or get their hands dirty. They want to be able to opt out. Pressure to participate in hands-on activities can be just as damaging to some children as the lack of it is for others. Fear, embarrassment, and shame are powerful teachers; they can far outweigh the momentary value of completing an activity that they they truly don’t want to do. For some children, immersion in an activity of their own or their leaders choosing is exactly the right thing to do, but others may not be ready or willing to participate. Yes, a multitude of opportunities of all kinds should be offered, but at the same time we must observe responses very carefully and be cautious with the tender, vulnerable souls, who are entrusted to us so briefly. The effect of our actions, both good and ill as they perceive it, will be part of their memories forever.

 They want to help. They hear the talk about how things will be in a few years: The world will be too hot to support life; the oceans will rise; animals will become extinct. They see dramatic examples of how change has already become evident. Children are empathetic, and they don’t separate their lives here with those of others’ around the world. They see their own faces in
those of Pacific island children clinging to their homes as the ocean rises around them; in those of the children who are trying to live as their ancestors did in rain forests that are being slashed and burned; and in those of the child refugees of drought and famine in Africa. They study distant lands and feel for the children there, but if they themselves were featured in a publication, how would they be portrayed? After all, sea levels on their continent are rising; their climate is heating; the crops that supply their food are threatened by drought and disease. This is the world they are growing up in. Does it show on their own faces yet? They want to change the outcome of these dire predictions, and they think they can, but I wonder whether or not their optimism is warranted. Generations before us assumed that their children would always know how to grow a garden to feed themselves; that they would know that water that is fouled cannot be drunk; that there is a limited amount of fuel to keep us warm in the winter. But that collective memory is largely gone now. Babies born today will be unable to care for themselves, much less the earth, by the time they reach adulthood unless we all shed our reluctance to share what knowledge we have as widely and well as we possibly can.

When the question, "What do children want?" is answered carefully and thoughtfully in each home, school, and nature center we will be able to reverse the decline of knowledge about nature. Learning about the earth will be an expression of a common value of our society. Environmental educators will be revered as the leaders I know them to be, and they will have legions of followers. But, if people are unable or unwilling to address this question, to defer their own responsibility to others; if the trend toward specialization and isolation of environmental educators escalates; and if derision and disdain for their methods continues, the profession will come to be seen by the general public as less and less relevant even as it becomes more and more necessary. I know these educators; they are like the islanders who will hang on until the surf laps their ankles, when all hope seems to be lost. But even they, eventually, will give it up, and then where will we be?

At the end of each week of our Young Naturalists camp, I always said goodbye to the children with this remark: Those of us who know something about nature have a responsibility to share our knowledge. I do, your leaders this week do, and you do. All of the teenagers and adults who have been here with you thought it was so important for you to learn about nature that they set aside the time in their busy lives to help you. After our time together, you have valuable knowledge, and it is now your responsibility to share it. When you invite a friend to explore a stream, celebrate your birthday with a group hike at a state park, explain something you’ve learned this week to your parents and siblings, or comment to a classmate on a flower growing by a sidewalk, you will be sharing your knowledge and expanding someone else’s. The children took that advice very seriously, and they are doing their part to educate others in their homes, neighborhoods, and schools.

The advice for the Young Naturalists holds for the rest of us: Those of us who know something about nature have a responsibility to share our knowledge. All of us, not just some, but all of us, are responsible for the nature education of children.

Camilla Wilcox December 18, 2012