In the Early Years
Transformative Tools in Sustainability Education
"We will not enter this kingdom of sustainability until we allow our children the kind of childhood in which Biophilia can put down roots."
— David Orr
'The single greatest challenge currently facing our species is reconnecting people with Nature' (Sampson, 2005). Euro-American culture alienates people from natural environments by physically and psychologically separating them from Nature at the earliest age, in favour of immersion in an artificial/virtual/fantasy world.
Yet, 'direct, personal contact with other living things affects us in vital ways that vicarious experience can never replace' (Pyle, 2003, p. 209). 'Extinction of experience' (p. 209) and 'environmental generational amnesia' (Kahn, 2002) render people less likely to develop an ethic of Nature care.
Research now shows a wide range of beneficial effects of contact with the natural environment on physical health, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and academic functioning (Foster and Linney, 2007). Undirected play in wild-like places results in environmental citizenship (Wells, 2000).
An ethic of kindness to animals has life-long psychological benefits. Early Nature-connecting makes later environmental education more effective (Foster and Linney, 2007). This research will support environmental educators who understand the importance of taking students outside or bringing Nature indoors.
Children's innate biophilia — their natural love and affinity for other living beings (Wilson, 1984) — must be protected and nurtured. '[A] sense of wonder at the rich diversity and complexity of life is easily fostered in children. They spontaneously respond to nature' (AAAS, 1993).
Teachers can model affection and respect for Nature in their language and attitude. Schools can express gratitude together before eating. Science education would be sure to include the dependence of all animals on green plants, that humans are animals, that other animals are social and skilled, and that animals have consciousness and feelings.
Indoors, teachers would make classrooms warm places with tenderness toward plants, kindness to animals, tolerance for spiders, and a Nature corner (Weston, 2005). Outdoors, teachers can help students develop a sense of place by allowing them to explore — literally — the earth beneath their feet. School grounds can be enhanced with naturalized areas. All students should plant seeds and tend plants.
Natural history is learned in Nature. Letting children 'be' in Nature is vital for creating a generation of students who grow to care for, and care about, the natural world.
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1993). The living environment. Benchmarks Online. Accessed online 5/5/2019 at
Foster, A and Linney, G (2007). Reconnecting Children Through Outdoor Education: A Research Summary. Council of Outdoor Education of Ontario, Toronto. Accessed online 5/5/2019 at
Kahn Jr, PH (2002). Children's affiliations with nature: structure, development, and the problem of environmental generational amnesia. In Kahn Jr, PH & Kellert, SR (Eds.), Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 93– 116
Pyle, RM (2003, April). Nature matrix: reconnecting people and nature. Oryx. 37 (2): 206-214. Accessed 4/1/2013 at
Sampson, SD (2005, September). The real crisis in evolution teaching. Edge [Online]. Accessed 4/1/2013 at
Wells, NM (2000). At home with nature: Effects of 'greenness' on children's cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior. 32 (6): 775-795
Weston, A (2005, Spring). What if teaching went wild? Green Teacher 76, pp. 8-12
Wilson, EO (1984). Biophilia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 111 pp.
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