Becoming an Earth Child
Andrew Deaett, Science Teacher
"Mom, I’m an earth child!" I was five then. It was the early spring and I was naked… head deep in dirt alongside my one-year-old brother, Henry. The garden was freshly tilled. The musty scent of earth filling the air after a whole winter of being covered in snow and ice."
 

This reflection on childhood written for Stewardship class by CS15 student Rosa Koehnlein, invites the question, what makes an earth child?  

We addressed that question in AP Environmental Science class as we explored the pedagogy and practices of early childhood environmental education. This series of lessons began by reading and discussing the essay "Beyond Ecophobia" by David Sobel. The central thesis of "Beyond Ecophobia" challenges the developmental appropriateness of introducing students to the weight of environmental problems at a young age.  At early ages, students are learning about the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, the devastating impacts of climate change, and the mass extinction of species. "Beyond Ecophobia" presents an alternative educational paradigm rooted in the biophilia hypothesis. 

In his 1984 book Biophilia, entomologist Edward O. Wilson describes biophilia "as the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes. …to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development.  To an extent, still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity; our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents."

Stemming from the biophilia hypothesis, Sobel (1998) writes, “I propose that there are healthy ways to foster environmentally aware, empowered students. We can cure the malaise of ecophobia with ecophilia – supporting children's biological tendency to bond with the natural world.”

If environmental education is tasked with teaching a bond with the natural world, where does an environmental educator begin? To further explore this question in science class, we engaged in a variety of environmental education activities.  

Two students wading in the water
Student with a net in the water

Science students took to Little Donahue Lake to study lake ecology, freshwater quality, and entomology while sampling benthic macroinvertebrates.  Benthic refers to the bottom surface of a water body, macro refers to organisms that are large enough to view without a microscope, and invertebrate refers to organisms without vertebrae (a backbone).  Benthic macroinvertebrates are known as bioindicator species; their presence or absence can give us insight into the health of an ecosystem. Certain species are intolerant of pollution, and their presence in a water body indicates high water quality. Certain species are highly tolerant of pollution, and their dominance in a water body indicates low water quality. Some of our findings included two species of dragonfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae, mayfly larvae, and dobsonfly larvae. The latter three are highly intolerant of pollution, indicating excellent water quality in Little Donahue Lake.  While sampling for benthic macroinvertebrates, students explored the lake, viewed insects through field scopes, learned how to use dichotomous keys, and perhaps most important, were given the opportunity to bond with the natural world.

A water bug
Students looking at a water bug under a microscope.
Student examining a water bug
Student drawing a water bug

We were also lucky enough to have a young learner join our class. Just over one year old, Lily Bee arrived with her magnifying glass in hand, ready to learn.  With tender care from loving parents and an involved community, Lily Bee leads the next generation of earth children, poised to follow her natural biophilia.  While developing an ecological literacy through activities such as sampling benthic macroinvertebrates is essential in environmental education, it is arguably not the most important focus for young learners seeking to bond with the natural world.  

Toddler looking at samples of collected water bugs

Rachel Carson wrote in The Sense of Wonder (1998), "I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil."

How then, does an environmental educator teach a young learner to feel?  Borrowing from the work of Joseph Cornell in Sharing Nature with Children (1998), I introduced science students to the methods of flow learning. Flow learning provides a structure to teach young learners how to feel, generating a deeper awareness of the interconnectivity of all beings. In "flow learning," there are four steps:

1. Awaken enthusiasm.  Represented by the otter, the educator begins an outing into nature by fostering a sense of enthusiasm, energy, and playfulness.


2. Focus attention. Represented by the crow, the educator's task is to mindfully transition the students’ energy toward a deeper focus, and attention to the world around them.


3. Direct experience. Represented by the bear, the educator facilitates direct sensory observation of natural phenomena.


4. Sharing inspiration. Represented by the dolphin, the educator provides students the opportunity to reflect on their experience, and share with one another.


To end our studies of biophilia and early childhood environmental education, we took to the forest to explore flow learning. After playing animal charades, hiding in the damp forest, and breathing with trees, science students wrote group poems about their experiences.  You can read several of their poems below.


Untitled Poem 3
The sun shining through the trees
The invertebrates had many different details,
Three tails or two?
A small difference can change what you’re looking at.
Looking very closely, one can almost always find a pattern.
An observation can evoke wonder in those who look deeper.
Solace fills me as I smell the trees.

Untitled  Poem 2
Drip drip the water falls off the trees soaking
My hair is wet
My clothes drip raindrops, each drop reflecting
The trees around me like tiny mirrors.
At times the sound of falling water has the 
Power to hypnotize.
Nothing has more importance than water.


Spiny Mammal in the Tree
You look like a brown spiky basketball
And you poke predators, protecting porcupine pals.
Then you, a little spiky blob, climb!
Velociraptors are great too!

Students playing in the woods
Teacher and students looking at the samples they collected from the lake


References:


Carson, R., (1998). The sense of wonder. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.


Cornell, J.B. (1998). Sharing nature with children. Nevada City, CA: DAWN Publications.


Sobel, D., (1998). Beyond Ecophobia. Retrieved from
https://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/education-for-life/803


Wilson, E.O., (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.