Coming to know our natural community through education
I'm writing this at a time when it's hard to think of anything beyond COVID-19, the measures that are in place to mitigate its spread and the human tragedies playing out across the world. Our schools, nature reserves and field centres have been closed for weeks now, access to natural environments is patchy and inequitable and 'normal' already feels unfamiliar. My 'normal' is working towards a PhD thesis which tries to document what happens when young children and teachers at two schools go outside. I use video and observations to better understand how everything interacts - humans, activities, stories, plants, toys, birds, weather, computer games. What I'm hoping to find out is how any of this relates to care for the natural world and learning for sustainability.
I had planned to write something here about how outdoor or environmental education can't, and doesn’t exist outside of social and cultural systems, and what that means if we hope it might support young people to develop skills and values to live within the means of our planet. But it feels hard to speak in generalities, or to think about what things will be like 'after' this global trauma. Maybe I can touch on some of it by thinking about what we're all living through.
We’ve already had to adapt to big adjustments in our daily lives. We’ve been reminded of all the functions that schools and other institutions perform just below the surface. Schools feed children, provide safe outdoor spaces for play, refuges for our most vulnerable children. Beyond the more crucial and subtle processes of Earth, parks, paths, woods and other greenspaces also allow us humans to exercise, find peace and maintain our wellbeing in the face of crisis. As such, we cannot ignore how unequal access to quality greenspace is, particularly in urban areas.
Having to change how we do things recently has exposed the complexity of the systems we depend on and are part of. People have adapted their behaviour out of care, or maybe even love, in order to protect others. Presumably we aren't staying at home just because we understand the science, or because we've been told to, but because we understand that our actions have consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable members of our communities. We're aware of how we relate to the other humans around us, and we do our best to act ethically, even if it affects what we want to do.
This process should be at the heart of environmental or sustainability education - the hope being that we can extend this care, concern or love beyond our human communities. Educators aspire to help others not only 'understand' what's going on around them, but foster relations that allow them to be 'response-able', to act in caring ways. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in... It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value.”
However, it’s easy to imagine how this often plays out in real world outdoor and environmental learning - the young child carefully relocates a ladybird, builds a bug hotel, hugs a tree or plants a seedling. But then they sit down to a snack from home, a tiny nugget of mass deforestation and biodiversity loss wrapped in plastic, or leave the clean water that they've been kick sampling behind and return to the polluted air or monoculture lawns of their communities. This sounds cynical, but when we look seriously at learning (not just children's) in context and in all its complexity and ask, "Does this demonstrate love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value?", I'm not sure we always get the answer we hope for.
This isn't necessarily because we're doing things wrong, but that human individuals are entangled in systems so complex (and compelling) that isolated interventions are ineffective in the face of global forces and the discourses, or stories, that give them power. This isn’t news of course - when Donella Meadows outlined places to intervene in a system, back in 1999, the two most effective and challenging were the paradigm out of which the system arises, and the power to transcend paradigms. Thomas Berry’s words from over 30 years ago still ring true:
"We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story… The Old Story - the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it - is not functioning properly, and we have not learned the New Story."
Integrating new stories (and there should be more than one) of the world should be a core part of all education. New ways of framing the world might integrate rather than separate scientific, embodied, cultural and aesthetic knowledges. Direct experiences of the natural world are rich starting points for developing relations that might position humans as more response-able members of the biotic community. However, only by extending and integrating these beyond 'environmental', 'outdoor' or 'sustainability' education into experiences that make sense as part of a coherent (if changed) culture is this likely to have a significant effect. Parents, early learning and childcare practitioners, teachers, pupil support assistants, gardeners, farmers and specialist environmental educators all have a lot to learn from each other, and alongside policy-makers, government and cultural creators, have a responsibility to craft a society whose culture shows our children why and how we value and care for the world around us.
If learning in, for, about, with and from rich natural environments were a core part of citizens' lives, the ethical decisions that we make every day would hopefully become clearer, if not necessarily 'easier'. If we can raise our children to know that we are members of a natural community, in reciprocal relation (meaning that it's not just about taking) with the other living beings and systems of this planet, then I think there's hope. As we see right now in our human context, people are willing to make sacrifices and adapt their behaviour because they care about members of their community. Our job as educators is to find ways to nurture the energy held in that relationship through joy, not just fear.