Ecological Principles as Transformative
Sustainability Education Focus
for Grades 4 to 5/6 (9-11 Year Olds)

As students start to become curious about how the world works,
this is the time to give them a solid grounding
in ecological principles.

Students at this age and stage start to explore the bigger world around them, so what better time to give them a solid grounding in the laws of the universe and the principles of ecology — in short, ecological literacy and consciousness.

As students begin to widen their sense of community, encourage them to include the natural world in their growing sense of place. Maintain outdoor undirected play even beyond the younger grades, and ensure your students have opportunities for outdoor education — both are important elements of the school experience.

This way, the study of ecology will be up close and personal for students, not abstract and faraway.

"If children go to school, what are they learning about, if not their home place, local history, neighborhood or ecosystem?"
— Maeve Frances Lydon

Play detective as a class and find out what kind of ecosystem your school was built in. Was a forest cleared? A meadow mown? A marsh drained? Talk to some elderly neighbours to find out what they remember. Is it possible to bring some of these features back to your schoolyard? What sorts of animals and plants used to live there? Can you and your class recreate habitat for them? What ecological principles should be at work here?

Discover your watershed (drainage basin) together. Where does your school's water come from, and how does it get there? Where does rainwater flow to? (A river, lake, dam, wetland, estuary, sea or the ocean?) Children need to learn that water runs downhill, and that we all live downstream. Put on your raincoats and follow rivulets created by the rain someday! You could look for evidence of hidden (covered over) streams while you're out there.

As a class, learn about your bioregion (an area — sometimes quite large — consisting of a natural ecological community with characteristic plants, animals and environmental conditions, bounded by natural rather than artificial borders). What makes it distinctive from neighbouring bioregions? Do some bioregional mapping with your students so they can create beautiful and personal visual representations of their new knowledge and sense of "home place."

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." — John Muir

I'll bet most people, including many teachers, would tell you they don't really understand how Nature supports life — they're just happy it does! But this lack of understanding has led to decades of ecologically unsound decisions in our society.

Those of us who admit to not understanding ecology can learn right along with our students. Once we understand several main ecological principles, we start to see them in action all around us.

Here are the most important ecological principles to teach your students — with thanks to the very special Institute for Earth Education — using fun, experiential, exploratory, hands-on, visceral (my word for full-body, get-down-and-dirty) activities!


  • The sun is the source of energy for life on Earth.
  • Energy flows from the sun to plants (green plants, which make their own food through photosynthesis, are absolutely vital to life on Earth — "all flesh is green," it is said), from plants to animals, then to animal eaters, and finally to decomposers.


  • Everything is made up of the same basic building materials (the elements in air, water and soil).
  • The building materials of life have been around a long, long time and are used over and over.
  • Nature does not waste. Waste equals food for another organism.


  • Every plant and every animal is related to every other living and nonliving thing on the Earth.
  • Plants and animals in an ecosystem are dependent on each other.


  • Everything is changing all the time. Everything is becoming something else.
  • This change happens always very slowly, and sometimes quickly.
  • Living things are constantly changing so that they can get and use energy and materials in better ways. It is this constant change that keeps life going.


  • Differences in living things provide for the success of all life.


  • All living things interact with other things in their surroundings.


  • To survive, everything must fit where and how it lives.

Indigenous peoples throughout the world, through their wisdom and history rooted in place, remind us of these ecological principles. "The Circle of Life" reminds us that what dies today makes new life tomorrow. The Native North American expression "All Our Relations" reminds us of our interconnectedness — we are, literally, related to everything else on Earth.


Here's the best (short) video available online for helping your kids remember that we're all connected. In fact, Wombat practically became the mascot of our school greening initiative — both students and adults love it. With several viewings, its message really began to sink in.

"The sun shines not on us, but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us." — John Muir

As a teacher (or parent) of students in grades 4-6, you can focus on ecological principles by helping them:

  • learn about how Nature (the biosphere) supports life
  • study how life works on Earth by researching what they have observed and experienced outdoors
  • use language that shows respect for the rest of Nature
  • learn (and experience) the laws of ecology and thermodynamics in lots of different ways
  • learn the carbon cycle (along with the water cycle) inside out and backwards (without at least a basic understanding of the carbon cycle, no one can truly understand global warming and climate change)
  • get to know local ecosystems and learn about global ecosystems
  • learn the names and characteristics of several local plants and animals (I've heard that most students recognize hundreds of commercial logos but can't identify even 10 local species)
  • appreciate the complexity of life and understand the common needs of all living beings
  • learn The Great Story of how life came to be on Earth (something that Maria Montessori believed in sharing with children), as an integrated continuum of evolution > ecology > biodiversity > ecosystem services (or Nature's Gifts)
  • discover the importance of biodiversity (learning that it took billions of years to come about is a great way for students to discover the significance of biodiversity)
  • integrate their learning, to counter the reductionism of the education system and the false separation of learning into different subjects that will greet them in later grades (all of which fragments the story of life for them)
  • discern that the ecosystem is everything, and gain an understanding of what makes an ecosystem healthy
  • learn about Charles Darwin, how he is misunderstood (or at least misquoted), and what science has discovered about evolution since Darwin (The simplistic view of competition and "the survival of the fittest" is misleading in terms of modern biological understandings. Mutualism, symbiosis and reciprocity rock! "Survival of the fittest" applies to whoever works together, fits in and adapts best in the long-term to their ecosystem.) 
  • start to make connections between ecological systems and human systems — otherwise known as social ecology
  • understand why Earth is called "the Goldilocks planet" and the role our distance from the sun plays in keeping our planet not too hot and not too cold
  • understand their ecological place and impact as components of an ecosystem, members of a species, constituents of a society, and individual human beings
  • do ecological mapping and "webbing" (similar to concept mapping) as an easy way to learn systems thinking 
  • develop their ecological consciousness and identity or sense of self (What elements and aspects of Nature do they identify with? Water? Air? The fire of energy? Landscapes? Which plants, birds, animals feed their souls?)
  • continue bonding with the natural world by encouraging exploration and stewardship of natural spaces and practising reverence for all life
  • discover their naturalist intelligence
  • spend time learning local natural history (for example, create a class book or calendar revealing the "true life stories" of different schoolyard or backyard species; include artwork — sketches, paintings, poetry)
  • start a lifelong habit of keeping their own Nature journal 
  • explore the 3 Rs from an ecological perspective, developing an ecological conscience; take responsibility for composting, reducing and reusing paper, and recycling in the school — and know why this is important (for example, for reducing greenhouse gases)
  • choose Eco-Heroes to learn about and emulate; you can use the webquest here to guide discovery (below is a class set of examples of decidedly EuroAmerican eco-heroes that students can choose from; list some from your country or region if you live somewhere else in the world)
  1. Ray Anderson
  2. David Attenborough
  3. John James Audubon
  4. Father Thomas Berry
  5. José Bové
  6. Erin Brockovich
  7. David Brower
  8. Gro Harlem Brundtland
  9. Wang Canfa
  10. Rachel Carson
  11. George Washington Carver
  12. Yvon Chouinard
  13. Liang Congjie
  14. Jacques Cousteau
  15. Severn Cullis-Suzuki
  16. John Denver
  17. Gerald Durrell
  18. Sylvia Earle
  19. Dian Fossey
  20. St. Francis of Assisi
  21. Buckminster Fuller
  22. Biruté Galdikas
  23. Chief Dan George
  24. Lois Gibbs
  25. Jane Goodall
  26. Mikhail Gorbachev
  27. Al Gore
  28. Greenpeace (imagine the world without them)
  29. Grey Owl
  30. James Hansen
  31. Denis Hayes
  32. Julia Butterfly Hill
  33. Bob Hunter
  34. Chai Jing
  35. Betty Krawczyk
  36. Aldo Leopold
  37. Jaime Lerner
  38. Christine Loh
  39. James Lovelock
  40. Paolo Lugari
  41. Wangari Muta Maathai
  42. George Perkins Marsh
  43. Elizabeth May
  44. Bill McDonough
  45. Donella Meadows
  46. Chico Mendes
  47. John Muir
  48. Elon Musk
  49. Arne Naess
  50. Senator Gaylord Nelson
  51. Léonidas Nzigiyimpa (Burundi)
  52. Prince Charles
  53. Vo Quy
  54. Stan Rowe
  55. Chief Seattle
  56. Ernest Thompson Seton
  57. Vandana Shiva
  58. Marina Silva
  59. Richard St. Barbe Baker
  60. Sister Dorothy Stang
  61. Rob Stewart
  62. David Suzuki
  63. Greta Thunberg
  64. Paul Watson
  65. Sheila Watt-Cloutier
  66. E. O. Wilson
  67. Andrij and Roman Zinchenko
  68. A local eco-hero in your community or country

and relate the work of these people to other teachings (for example, the conservation work of Grey Owl to save the beaver in Canada from extinction would integrate well with study of the early fur trade in North America)

  • learn indigenous stories of Nature and ecological principles
  • be open to plant and animal totems, allies or guardians
  • become familiar with all the ecosystem services, or, as some of us prefer to call them, Nature's Gifts
  1. regulation of atmospheric gases
  2. climate regulation
  3. flood protection and drought recovery ("disturbance regulation")
  4. regulation of water flows
  5. supply of water
  6. erosion control
  7. soil formation
  8. nutrient cycling/decomposition
  9. waste treatment/pollution control
  10. pollination
  11. pest control/population control
  12. habitat
  13. food production
  14. raw materials and resources (lumber, fuel, fodder)
  15. genetic resources/biodiversity
  16. opportunities for recreation
  17. cultural resources (artistic, scientific, educational, spiritual, aesthetic values of ecosystems)

Have your class pick out the six most important gifts — impossible! — or discuss what would happen if just one of them disappeared or stopped working.

(The pioneering paper on ecosystem services by Robert Costanza et al in 1997, "The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital," is available here.)

The seed that I'm trying to plant is that much of what students learn at this age can be done through the lens of ecological principles, and learning how life works on this precious planet.
I hope this seed can be nurtured in your classroom,
school and educational jurisdiction.

Go from Ecological Principles (Grades 4-5/6) to 
Environmental Solutions (Grades 6/7-10)

Return from Ecological Principles to Greening the Curriculum

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