The Heart of Environmental Education
Stefan Anderson

In 2003, while working to improve my understanding of effective environmental education, I was fortunate to be given a copy of the book Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education written by David Sobel, an education professor at Antioch University. I was assured that the short book, only 47 pages with a preschooler on the cover, had the potential to transform my understanding of environmental education for high school students. I was more than a bit skeptical, but I had a flight to D.C. coming up and 47 pages about environmental education seemed like an easy way to pass the time. I left Minneapolis as a skeptic, but somewhere over Pennsylvania, my skepticism transformed to appreciation for the simple but important message the book held for me.

In Beyond Ecophobia, David Sobel lays out a path for nurturing children to develop into caring environmentally minded citizens. Along this ideal path, students start with the empathy stage. In this stage, from age four to seven, students cultivate relationships with the natural world on a visceral level through their senses. Emphasis is on forming internal connections and understandings of their environment, rather than the ability to apply the correct labels and terms to what they are observing. From age seven to eleven, students are in the exploration stage. They are budding scientists, explorers, and adventurers. They develop understandings of how things work on a deeper level. They form their own questions and seek their own answers. From age twelve through the teens, they move into the social action phase. David Sobel writes, "As children start to discover the 'self' of adolescence and feel their connectedness to society, they naturally incline toward wanting to save the world."

The portrayal of the developmental journey, empathy to exploration to social action, was not the big aha moment for me. Rather, it was the consideration of the impact the lack of the empathy and exploration stages could have on a child's ability to become a life-long socially active environmentalist. This was very important to me, because many of the students in my charge had limited exposure to those stages in their lives.

I considered techniques that some programs were using to move people from concern to action for the planet. All too often, I found that programs started by enumerating the many devastating consequences that would occur without immediate action. They built an atmosphere of fear about a future filled with doom and gloom. I saw that many of these programs seemed to get immediate positive responses, but they did not feel right to me. I started to look back. I have collected a number of books from the 1970's which were published around the time of the first Earth Day. Most of these books enumerated devastating consequences that would occur by the year 2000 without immediate dramatic actions. Most of the dramatic actions they called for were not taken. However, the world has not felt the consequences of weak responses to those problems in the ways and along the timelines those authors predicted. My environmentally skeptical friends often point to those campaigns to suggest that the environmental movement is more about politics and less about the planet. I have come to a different conclusion, it is my firm belief that those campaigns from the past, and current campaigns, that use fear as the primary motivating factor are doomed in the long-term for a simple human reason. Fear, while being a strong motivator in the short-term, is not an effective long-term motivator. When faced with a danger over a prolonged period, humans find ways to create a personal reality that either accepts, ignores or denies the danger.

This is where David Sobel's book came into play for me. As a high school environmental educator, my responsibility is to provide students with more than the skills and knowledge taught in AP Environmental Science. I must also provide them with opportunities to create and develop an empathetic bond with the world around them. I must provide them with opportunities to explore the landscape and feel its rhythms. I must create spaces and the time for students to experience the intrinsic wonders of the natural world. When aiming to educate students about the environment, I must start by aiming for the heart and let the head follow.

Those were the thoughts that echoed through my mind as I worked with others to develop the Conserve School semester experience. They remain an important consideration in my ongoing work. Solo camping, phenology spots, and ample free time to explore the School's 1200 acre forested campus provide the time and the space to develop empathy. Outdoor Skills class, weeklong adventure trips and weekend outings provide students with opportunities for explorations and the skills to do so safely. Lessons and projects related to stewardship, communication, citizenship, art, and environmental science give students the skills to share their voice and their talents to take purposeful action for the good of the planet. Most importantly, they are not primarily motivated to take that action out of fear. Ideally, their primary motivation is the love and respect for the natural world developed through the empathy and exploration stages. At the start of the semester, I share this vision of environmental education with the students. I tell them it is my hope that during their time at Conserve School they will learn to love the land here and become more open to love other lands in the future. I suggest that they spend the next 17 weeks getting to know Conserve School's Lowenwood campus so that they can become part of it, not just a visitor. In the foreword to A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold wrote, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." I would add, when we hold the land in our heart, we will protect and defend it today, tomorrow and forever.

Students learning in the Conserve School gardens.

Students enjoying a dug out canoe that they helped create.

Building shelters out of found objects.

A student at her solo camping site.

Students spend time in remote wilderness areas.

  • Head's Notes