A child walks into the forest.
Or does she?
In this age of stranger danger and dwindling open spaces, children interact with video screens more than natural places. Natural places are inaccessible to children. Vacant lots are fenced off. Children are asked to stay inside after school to stay safe, or they have no time for free, unstructured play.
In his book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv talks about this phenomenon, calling it “nature-deficit disorder.” The journalist interview three thousand families about the changing nature of childhood, and what he found inspired him to write a book that explores the need for children to connect with nature. It became a bestseller.
We are born needing to connect with other life, whether this life is a pet, a garden, or a forest. Heading outside is healthy for our physical, mental and emotional well-being. An American biologist named Edward Wilson has named this affinity for other life “biophilia.”
Unfortunately, today many of us connect nature with fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of extinction and climate change. Fear for our future. In our classrooms, how do we build on children’s desire to connect with other life? How do take fear and move into positive action? When we teach ecological literacy, we can do both of these things.
What is ecological literacy?
When we teach ecological literacy, we teach about how nature works.
We learn that:
Life is cooperative. The patterns and networks of species, communities, and systems sustain each other.
Life needs to be diverse. Diversity means that we can change.
Every living and non-living thing is connected. Life is about relationships. Ecosystems are communities. Species work with each other in relationships. And yes, this sometimes means that they eat each other. That’s a relationship too.
Everything starts with the sun. This is what feeds the plants that sustain life on earth.
Matter cycles. Every piece of sand and drop of water has been here forever, and it will always be here, albeit in a different form.
Ecosystems do not have waste. Waste is always food for another organism. If an animal poops, something has to eat that!
People need nature to survive. We need clean air, water, and soil. We need plants and other animals to work with us and sustain us.
Why teach ecoliteracy?
Imagine a classroom or a home that fosters a sense of wonder for the natural world and encourages children to explore that world, both freely and as part of structured projects.
This place would foster joy in our relationship with the rest of nature and encourage children to have an ongoing relationship with natural places, whether these are a corner of an urban schoolyard or a wilderness area.
Together, adults and children would learn that they rely on nature and that they are part of nature. This would provide a foundation so that children could inquire, learn and grow as life-long citizens of the planet.
Why should we create such a space in our classrooms and in our homes?
Literacy is about teaching building blocks – letters, words – so that early readers can comprehend written language. However, the objective is not only to yield people who know how to identify words. The objective is also to create a life long love of reading. We teach literacy so that our students yearn to ask questions and find answers and learn about their place in the world.
The same is true for ecological literacy. Through ecological literacy, children and adults grow to understand nature and their place in nature. We foster connections with nature and encourage people to move beyond fear to explore, learn and act on their knowledge.
So that our children can walk into a forest and feel a joyful connection with that place.
Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv
A look at the importance of nature in childhood that explores ways to renew connections between children and natural places.
Sharing Nature with Children and Sharing the Joy of Nature by Joseph Cornell
Activities to inspire reconnection with nature.