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How to inspire empathy and a land ethic that lasts?

 
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We know that regular engagement between children and nature is vital to forming a healthy land ethic and relationship with local and global ecosystems. In The School Garden Curriculum, I wrote that “facts without emotional and experiential context hold little meaning.” But I’m curious about what approaches other people (educators, parents, guardians, humans) have taken to provide meaning-making and emotional context for children in the garden or in natural spaces.

How have you created opportunities for children to empathetically connect to nature? What messages do you believe are vital to share with children? What teaching techniques do you use?

At the heart of these questions is one that I am always asking myself in my work: how do we nurture children into the vital knowledge of an interconnected world at risk, without depressing them and inducing apathy, but rather inspire change-makers and advocates?
 
pollinator
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Kaci Rae Christopher wrote:
At the heart of these questions is one that I am always asking myself in my work: how do we nurture children into the vital knowledge of an interconnected world at risk, without depressing them and inducing apathy, but rather inspire change-makers and advocates?



Not easy and I've no experience in assisting children in their interactions with nature.  Did a brief volunteer stint some years back in child abuse prevention, since I feel that intra-family violence is the breeding ground for most violent dispositions to others and the planet.  But see https://permies.com/t/69351/extending-Childhood-good-idea  for my link to an excerpt from the late Paul Shepard who expounded systematically and yet eloquently on the idea.  In all of it, I feel death has to be openly discussed and neither hidden nor embellished, difficult as that may be coming from our mainstream cultural inclinations.  At the end of the day, it just seems better to conclude "I tried....." than to capitulate to apathy or pessimism.
 
steward
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As a child I grew up in a farm and ranch family. Everyday was full of direct connection with nature. When mom and dad moved to the city, we always found time to go into the mountains to camp, hunt, and fish. Again spending a couple days at a time immersed in nature. As an adult with my own children I tried to replicate some of those experiences. I think that people who are able to have immersive experiences like those tend to gain empathy and understanding of the circle of life and the importance of the land . One of the adventures that I will always remember from my childhood was a 6th grade, week long, mountain camp, that every child in our school district attended over time. Lots of fun and lots of learning was had by all.
 
pollinator
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I posted something that may fit here in this thread

https://permies.com/t/110503/Biophilia-Ecoliteracy-Humans
 
gardener
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I work in city public school gardens. I also invite the neighborhood to harvest herbs from my yard. Nature provides endorphins, food, mental calmness, etc. We just need to open the door. When the kid said "turn on the hot" when we used the hose or another argued apples didn't grow on trees (while I stood next to an apple tree)...etc. it just showed how much magic/knowledge we can share and with knowledge comes power.
 
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The more I think about this, the more I think it comes down to understanding all nature has to give, and also learning to be less selfish and know the difference between wants and needs. All the knowledge about how lovely nature is and how destructive plastic and fossil fuels are, won't get someone far if they really want that muscle car or giant house or lots of toys. The consumerism/"me" culture--which is so destructive to our happiness and our world--needs to be taught against. And, that's a hard one!

It's easier to teach the enjoyment of nature--through playing in nature and foraging from nature. But, it's harder to teach the love of nature. It's like The Giving Tree. The boy enjoyed the tree and understood all it had to give. He enjoyed the tree, but he didn't love it. Instead, he used and abused it.

Today, I was sitting with my son, eating lunch. My 2 year old daughter had wanted to come in because it was raining, and my son went in with her while I put away the tools. I came inside to find him having got her in her high chair, put her high chair tray on her, got her some food from the freezer and yogurt from the fridge. I told him that's what love is. It's choosing to help someone else.

We have to help the next generation to understand love. In addition to understanding all nature gives. In addition to understanding the difference between wants and needs and how we really all just need "enough," not "more."

These are tough concepts! And, like with parenting and teaching, there's going to be everyone with different ideas of how to go about this, and some techniques will work better with some kids and some cultures and some ages more than with others. Each child is an individual!

For me, I think the best way to teach love and wants-vs-needs is to model them and to give a child security. If a child is stressed , they're going to have a hard time seeing the difference between their wants and needs. If they're needs aren't met, but some wants are (as is common with many low-income kids, because their parents don't have enough money to supply their needs, and the thought process goes, "I may not be able to pay the power bill, but I have 5 dollars to buy them this toy and bring a smile on their face"), they are going to have an even harder time understanding the difference. What is a teacher to do? Create as low-stress environment as possible in the classroom. Create safe havens both in and out of the classrooms--preferably ones in the garden! Have more time out in nature, because it does calm one down. Show them how they can meet their needs with nature through the food they grow and harvest. Give them chances to give and to show love without any force. Encourage giving behaviors through play and cooperative learning.

And, through all this, share some of the things wrong in the world, that are harming nature, and help them to take action against them. Show them that they ARE taking action with their gardens. Have them bring in old t-shirts and pants and turn them into reusable shopping bags. Teach them to turn off the water when they're brushing. These are small acts, but they are small acts that they can DO, so they don't feel helpless. Helplessness is so damaging to children--(when they feel they cannot act better in class, they give up and act up more. When they feel they cannot meet their needs no matter what they do, they give up and stop trying. On so many levels, helplessness is damaging). As teachers and parents and community members, we are empowerers. We can give the kids the stability and structure and tools to feel that they can change the world, one little act at a time.

We shouldn't tell the child about something wrong in the world (pollution, climate change, etc) without giving them some tool to fight it. And, sometimes those tools are hard to find, but we adults need to find them, because we have to make sure there's a world for our kids to live in when they are older.

Love is a verb. It's something that we DO. It's a muscle that we exercise. We need to give kids ways to DO something to love the earth, for them to (1) feel empowered and not depressed, (2) actually use those love muscles and learn to love.    


Those are my late-night ramblings/musings to figure out what I'm think! Here's the summary:

  • (1) Give the kids calm and safety and security: Kids need security to be able to form an attachment to the world, and to see the difference between wants and needs. Get them out in nature to help give them that security. Make your classroom and garden a refuge.
  • (2) Be a roll model: show how you love the earth. Show how you aren't consumed by consumerism. Explain why you do what you do. Kids love truthful explanations! And show them how to love by loving them.
  • (3) Give them experiences that show that nature is worthwhile. That it helps them meet their needs, and that it has worth. Help them enjoy nature. Get them playing in nature. Foraging in nature. Give them safe little nooks to hide in nature.
  • (4)  With every problem with the world, empower them with a solution: Help them to exercise those love muscles by giving them things they can do to love the earth, and help them not be depressed because depressed people stop trying.
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    The way I get my kids to understand how nature is in everything we are and we do is we source all our materials we need from the forest, garden, beach. We are careful in how we harvest and take as little as we need. All their tools like needles, knitting needles, spindles, hammers, etc are made from materials found in nature. They seen how clot is made because they've helped grow and process it (linen), they use wool from sheep they've met and recognise from farms they frequent. I feel that's the best way for my city kids to have the knowledge and care for the world around them.
     
    pollinator
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    I agree with Miles that immersion is vital and Nicole that love is the key. If we love and appreciate nature ourselves and share that with children, I believe we are doing the best we can.
    I don't think deep nature appreciation can be taught inside a classroom (although further research and study is extremely valuable once the spark is lit), it's the actual getting out there in nature. When my kids were young we lived in Anchorage, very much in the city but we had a yard with gardens and the city has lots of greenspace and wonderful trails throughout. I made a point of taking them on a nature walk every single day, even if it was 20 below and we just walked around the yard for 10 minutes making observations. We would go inside and share with each other and draw about what we saw in our nature notebooks.
    I LOVE nature notebooks!
    My kids were homeschooled so we were blessed with the ability to go on hikes when we felt like it, or work/play in the garden for hours but I think nature study can be done in a school setting if it's done regularly and with the proper guidance. Since kids often change teachers yearly here in the US, that would prove difficult over the long term. There are schools that have nature study integrated into the curriculum but they are generally high priced Waldorf type schools for the privileged.
    I originally read about nature study (and got many ideas and inspiration from) a British educator that taught over 100 years ago named Charlotte Mason. I disagree with many of her beliefs and methods but agree with so much of what she taught, especially her insistence on how vital it is for children to get out into and study nature.
    I got my ideas for our nature notebooks from her, as well as the realization that we could learn so much just by getting outside and observing,  even in a city, even for 10 minutes.
    My sons are 22 and 18 now, very busy with college and neither one of them keep nature notebooks or have their own outdoor projects on the homestead (we moved to rural WA state when they were 11 & 7) but they are both kind and compassionate people, they always help if I ask (I jokingly refer to them as my "brutes") and they care about the environment and what's going on around them. They are concerned with political/climate/gender issues and treat women respectfully. They still both live at home and we still go on a lot of walks together. My youngest always points out nests and other changes in nature and my oldest likes to sit outside and draw. It may be comic books with demons and swords but he is appreciating being outside in nature.
    They are kind to animals; they've rescued many snakes, birds and bunnies from the barn cats and feel disappointed seeing snakes and frogs that have been run over. It's obvious they have empathy for all creatures and wild spaces and I know nature appreciation/study has played a huge part in that.
     
    Kaci Rae Christopher
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    Nicole Alderman wrote:What is a teacher to do? Create as low-stress environment as possible in the classroom. Create safe havens both in and out of the classrooms--preferably ones in the garden! Have more time out in nature, because it does calm one down. Show them how they can meet their needs with nature through the food they grow and harvest. Give them chances to give and to show love without any force. Encourage giving behaviors through play and cooperative learning.



    I hadn't considered just how important providing security is for children, in the context of fostering love (verb) of the land or in introducing the difficult outcomes and causes of a drastically changing world. But looking back on my own experiences, I can see how a lack of security leads to helplessness. I remember learning about the Amazon rainforest as a child in school and about deforestation, but also feeling removed from the crises--in physical and emotional distance. I learned about all the problems facing the ecosystem, but wasn't given the tools to fix the problem, nor did I understand the role that I, a child, could take on to address the problems I learned about. I felt helpless, because the problems seemed so much bigger than the solutions I could imagine or was given ("raise money for these large/distant organizations").

    This experience reminds me of how children can learn about global concerns and issues and learn ways to address them, as well as practice their love/empathy skills for the earth, by engaging with local concerns and movements. The school lessons I learned about the Amazon rainforest as a child were important, but failed to give me the skills and tools I needed. Perhaps applying this knowledge in a physical way, learning about deforestation in my local community/eco-region, participating in local events, and learning about changes I could make at home would have kept me from the feelings of despair and insecurity--a product of too much knowledge and too few tools.
     
                              
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    I have found that nothing brings me more joy than seeing the spark of awareness ignite in young souls: I believe that there is no subject that is more valuable in schools than gardening; being aware of the life around you has a cascade of benefits.  To be numb to the world is, to so many, is the American condition; money doesn't taste very good: I see teaching children the basics of gardening as, not only enriching, but a tool of survival.  What happens in their futures can be altered by us: I am so delighted to have found this collective of kindred spirits.  I was very active in my son's school's garden (easily hundreds of hours), but I had to pull back.  Neglecting to recognize how hard it would be to get the staff properly involved was a devastating reality check: many administrations really want nothing to do with the school garden scene (and realizing how silly some teachers' sense of their knowledge & capacity to teach something they know nothing about, is a must!!!).  Proceeding with caution, a making sure the administration is aware, and hopefully involved is important if your starting from scratch.  I was warned, by the head of the School Garden Network in my county, she is also Slow Food, and a Master Gardener: this trio of volunteer platforms is a golden way to support schools; I will be holding that torch once it gets too heavy for her.  I don't mean to deviate from the subject: if we are not parents of children attending a school, there are still ways to help (getting fingerprinted through your local school district is advised, and likely legally necessary, too/ a criminal record totally puts the kabash on you ability to work with kids).  Learning so much the hard way (still can't believe how lame it is that the principal most likely never give a manure) with being involved with a school will never change my sense that gardening is the most important thing to bring to children.  They absorb a lot more technical info and are more excited at a young age: the children I had the joy of explaining the basics to will retain the majority of that information.  Working with the local HS Farm to Table class is a total kick in the pants!  When you ask 30 some odd teenagers, "Anyone know what sustainability is?" blank faces/ too cool to pay attention, "Anyone, want to take a stab at it?"  Of course someone finally said, "Um, to sustain."  This was when we were about to prep their (way too tall) planting boxes, we employed hugelkultur (with local and onsite, mostly free, materials), to help the plants make it through the 100+ degree heat we get in the summer.  Many of the students that aren't terribly interested in the content, but love being outside and are happy to work.  The main concept I share with every student is you can do anything if you pay attention: inspiring this awareness of the life around you gives a gentle nudge to have not only a healthy land ethic, but a happier and healthier existence.
        When I was my son's age I wanted to be a Singing Firefighting Ballerina, perhaps not at the same time.  As I grew and embraced philosophy I decided to have a paw in changing as many lives for the better; money not being the focus.  This has given me a richness of life; being dirt poor isn't so bad when your favorite thing to do is make new dirt.  I, too, plan to write a book to assist others in the quest to help children see, and treasure the planet; we only get the one.  
       To all the other Singing Firefighting Ballerinas out there, never give up: A Garden in every School!!!
     
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    I've lost track of how many times passers by would stop by my house and ask me about the plants I have growing there. Almost everybody seems to have at least one fond memory of a garden-- their mother's, grandmother's, or a neighbor's. In general, our capitalism and consumer culture prevents people from being -still-. It's always work work work go go go, one fluorescent box to another, screen to screen. It is very much a malicious design beyond the direct control of common folk. I expect that in order to give people the space with which to feel secure, breathe, be still, and re-connect with nature in their daily lives on a large and meaningful scale...well, we'd have to first completely upend the entire structure of our society. Anything less than that will fall woefully short of saving the planet and ergo our children's future.

    Anyways, what I impart to children when given the chance is this: respect for life. Not just human life, but all life. A sense of purpose and honor in enriching/serving one's community and the earth. I get them involved in gardening and I make sure that the food they eat is not processed and/or full of sugar (ie it still looks like something that was once alive). Gardening gives one a strong basis on which to deal with the world. One understands that death feeds life, and that everything has its time. When it is time to cull a diseased plant or dead limb for the sake of the whole. That in many cases, it is far better to stay your hand and observe than to rush in and "fix" things. Further, to allow those around you to be their genuine selves instead of what -you- think they should be. To be aware of your surroundings and the lives of those around you in general. That it is everyone's responsibility to provide and nourish the community, not just a designated few-- especially with such a baseline, necessary task as growing, preparing, and putting food on the table. Also, that communities/families are MUCH larger than mom-dad-child(ren), and that relying on others for survival is not just our default state as a species, it is our greatest strength.
     
    pollinator
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    In my opinion children learn best from the example given by their parents. So it's better if an education project does not only aim at the children, but at their parents too. Ask the parents to 'volunteer' in the 'school garden, to help their children there ... it's a 'stealth' way to educate the parents too.
    Of course most parents have their jobs, so they can't volunteer at school hours. That's a good reason to choose the weekends for working at the 'school garden'. Another good reason for that choice is: the teachers of the school will not be there, or only those who really want to be there.
    OK, I understand, if this is something for volunteers in the weekends, not all children of the school (or all parents) will be there. That's the downside. But those who are there will have a nice educative experience and after some time they can educate others. They can tell how awarding it is to grow your own veggies!
     
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