A Brighter Shade of Green – Rethinking environmental education

Picture a swimming lesson where the class begins with a video of the dangers of drowning and shark attacks. Next up is home economics where the teacher focuses on the risk of salmonella, knife accidents and burns from spilt hot liquids. Then just before lunch there is religious education about the history of conflicts between major religions, and the potential for future problems.

Most would agree that this is not the way to foster a love of swimming, cooking or god; to prioritise learning the dangers of swimming over the thrill of being in water, the risks of cooking over savouring the smell and taste of foods, or prioritising religious history and politics over experiencing the feeling of connection with something greater than us.

Well now consider environmental education. What graphic images are used to bring about environmental awareness and push for behavioural change and what importance is given to experiencing and falling in love with nature?

Our children, some of them very young, see graphic images of habitats stripped bare and are told of extreme temperatures and rising sea levels upturning our lifestyles and risking our very existence. It is designed to stir up emotions but consider this: studies show that this generation of children is the most alienated from nature than any before it in the history of humankind. What are the consequences of messages of doom without a real world connection with the environment? What if the first emotion we focused on stirring up was love—a love of the natural world? Do we create despair by the way we teach about the environment to a generation that is removed from nature?

A recent study from The Australian Children Foundation would suggest so. It found that one in four kids aged between 10 and 14 is so troubled by the state of the world that they believe it will come to an end before they make it to adulthood. Over half believe there will not be enough water for them.

What are the consequences of the message that the world is a dangerous place and that their future is bleak? The psychological impact of being raised in a household where one is fearful is well documented. Can this be extended to being raised in a world where one does not feel safe? Amongst other things, a child conditioned by fear has an increased risk of anxiety disorders.

So perhaps it’s time to rethink exactly how we are teaching our kids about the environment.

I often hear people say how amazing it is that kids nowadays are more environmentally aware than past generations. From a decade working in environmental education in Australia and the UK, I would say that children know more about the implications of our actions and the consequences that may follow. However, I would also say that they are significantly less aware of their local environment. Put another way, they are full of information but lacking in experience.

It’s a simple equation. You protect what you love and you love what you’ve experienced. Therefore, if we want our children to protect the environment, we have to provide opportunities for them to experience it and to fall in love.

It is this direct experience that I feel needs to be at the heart of environmental education. Experience combined with an inspiring message of possibilities and hope that focuses on solutions whilst painting a picture of the world that we want—not the world that we don’t want. Because moving towards what you want is not the same thing as moving away from what you want to avoid—a point often forgotten in the way we present environmental education.

Direct experience helps develop empathy with and wonder for the natural world and a true understanding of our interconnectedness. This attitude then effortlessly leads to behaviour that nurtures and respects the world we live in.

Unfortunately, as soon as the social movement of environmental awareness was taken up by formal education, it fell into the curriculum machine. How do you test someone’s level of nature appreciation, their conservation attitude or their environmental ethic?

Along the way, the role of direct experience seems to have been undervalued.  Studies regularly show that the most cited influence on an adult’s environmental ethics and conservation activism is the time they spent in nature as a child. Why then is this not a primary focus of environmental education?

If one doubts the power that direct experience in nature can have, then listen to the great environmentalists like Attenborough, Gore, Suzuki, Leopold and Carson. They all say that what got them passionate and inspired about nature, was a childhood rich in natural experience and an inspiring adult to share it with them. 

Not only does direct experience help generate a love for nature but there are also other benefits to consider. A growing wealth of evidence demonstrates that direct nature experiences are critical to physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

Time in nature has been shown to improve co-ordination, balance, confidence and self-esteem. It reduces the risk of depression and anxiety whilst improving cognitive function, problem solving skills, self-discipline and emotional wellness.  It has even been linked to an increased tendency for creativity and cooperation.

The general lack of connection our culture now has with nature plays a significant role in the current sustainability crisis. Through alienation from that which sustains us, we damage the earth and over consume its resources to our own detriment.

So how do we currently teach it and is it working?

Of course, practically speaking, in main-stream schools, most of the environmental education children receive simply will not be outdoors. But the messages they receive indoors are also very important.

Interestingly within the ‘Green’ Movement there are many shades. For years the battle was between what have come to be known as the ‘Light Greens’ and the ‘Dark Greens’.  Light Greens believe the problem exists in our lifestyle and we all have a personal responsibility to change. The Dark Greens argue that this is not enough. They believe radical ideological change is required as the system of industrialised-capitalism is a primary cause.

More recently a third shade of green has emerged—the ‘Bright Greens’. This group suggests that better designs, new technologies and more widely distributed social innovations can bring about the radical changes needed for sustainability. Their often quoted point is that we can neither shop nor protest our way to sustainability. The Bright Green Movement recognises the risk of the messages of doom often given in relation to the environment. Instead it shows that it is not hopeless as many of the tools and ideas for success already exist. It promotes behavioural change in terms of opportunities as opposed to compromises. It recognises that people need to be motivated and inspired to act, and that this is not achieved through creating fear, guilt and despair.

Currently public environmental campaigns and formal school education are more influenced by the Light Greens. In particular the motivator we choose for teaching about the environment is clearly fear and guilt to change life style. We are attempting to shock people into action. But is it working?

It was assumed that the shock tactics of public campaign messages scared people into ‘correct’ behaviour. Just think of drink-driving, safe sex or anti-drug ads. When the desired results are not achieved, we ramp up the shock tactics, making progressively more disturbing campaigns. Each year we have our minds assaulted with a new set of even more horrific images.

This approach is now being re-evaluated. Findings are showing that shock tactics over time create desensitisation to the message; people shut off as it is too confronting and the message is ignored.

In the case of older teenagers, they have even found shock tactics to be counter-productive with some studies showing substance abuse actually increasing—albeit marginally—after exposure to graphic anti-drug campaigns.

Environmental campaigns have tended to be through shock tactics; a lone polar bear on floating ice, burning jungle with orphaned baby orangutan, computer-generated images of cities under water, statistics of numbers of species that will be extinct within this century.

This is the common approach followed by schools, public education campaigns, and environmental groups.  Many people, it seems, have become desensitised or so overwhelmed that their response is despair followed by inaction.

Then there are our young ‘eco-warriors’ who are compelled to act when they see these images and are shocked by the future that may await them. Traditionally this has been seen as a successful outcome for educators, but what is the long term impact of being driven by fear? Studies clearly show that children raised in stressful conditions are more likely to develop anxiety disorders in later life. In his book The Seven Spiritual Laws for Parents, Deepak Chopra points out that, “feeling safe as an adult means that some time before the age of two, you were not conditioned by fear.” 

The message that children can easily pick up today is that the world is dangerous and our very future is at risk. Living with persistent fear is destructive. It has a detrimental physiological impact of developing children. So what can be done, whilst still ensuring our children do learn the lessons they need?

Solutions – A different shade of green

For a start it is the adults who must act and be suitable role models. It is our attitude and actions that created the problem and our actions must create solutions. I believe the greatest environmental lesson a parent can give a child is to show them that they themselves value the environment enough to make radical changes in the home.  Adopt the technologies currently available and, crucially, show how none of these require sacrifice. The message to pass on is that people can change their ways easily.

So environmental education is clearly not limited to school time. In our roles as parents and guardians, we are always teaching about the environment—by what we do and what we don’t do. By what we buy and, critically, what we don’t buy. By what we eat, throw away and how we travel. Educate yourself and then lead by example. From a child’s perspective, if your parents can’t change, how can the rest of the world.

Our actions speak infinitely louder than our words. If we are afraid of the bush or the ocean, or the so-called dangers, which have usually been blown well out of proportion, we have a duty to our children to address these unhelpful beliefs and to not pass them on. Conversely, if we allow ourselves as adults to reconnect to the child inside us who finds everything new and exciting, this passion will pass infectiously to the little people around us. If we cannot, for whatever reason, bring ourselves to do these things, then we owe it to our kids to find inspired adults who are willing and able to share time in nature.

We must look to heal the broken bond that exists between children and nature. We need that close personal relationship with nature and the understanding of our interdependence with it. We protect ourselves by protecting it. Parents play an integral role in allowing their children to fall in love with the wild.

We also have to be vigilant about the messages that come from outside the home. Just as we would protect our kids from other graphic images in the media, be aware of the images and concepts that are given to educate about the environment. We are very good at protecting our children from images and stories of violence against people, yet what about violence against the planet. Violence against an ecosystem is an attack on everything it supports, including us. As with all things there needs to be a recognition of age appropriateness. A strong guard against the images and concepts that children will inevitably see and hear is strong personal relationship with nature through direct experience which reinforces that the world is amazing.

As parents we may be lucky enough to have a choice of which school to send our children to. If not then begin discussions at school about what is age appropriate information and how messages can be presented more in terms of what sort of world we want – rather than what we want to avoid.

As families, schools, communities we need to start having discussions about what sort of world we want to live in. It’s amazing how many people are only clear on what they don’t want. We need to set clear goals and measure our actions against that.

Some schools are aligning themselves with the “Bright Green” approach, by moving away from the fear-based campaigns and only looking at the solutions that are available and promote the changes that are occurring. They aim to remove the sense of despair and create optimism.

The school camp is of course priceless and often mentioned by adults as a major nature based memory. In recent years however there has been a reduction in school excursions for both financial and litigation reasons. But it’s time to see the bigger picture. A lack of funds is more often a lack of priority. Do we really need a computer on every desk at school? Wouldn’t our kids benefit from less screen time and more green time? And any risk of being in nature should be weighed up against the risks of not connecting with nature. If parents are the driving force for excursions, then the issue of fear of litigation is addressed. Often the school camps that do exist have tended to be high-jacked by leadership, team building or sporting priorities and moved away from a nature experience.

Some schools are bucking the trend and regularly visit the local creeks, forests and beaches and taking part in community based conservation activities. Locally is where we can make a real different and there is lasting power in seeing real success close to home.

Nature of course isn’t just in national parks; it’s all around us. Opportunities for children to experience nature exist in both the schoolyard and the back yard.

It’s time to bring nature back to the school grounds. Rip up the concrete and paving and plant grass, gardens, ponds and plant forests. Studies have shown that when schools create green or wild space they improve both general behaviour and academic results. School grounds are slowly becoming places to celebrate nature, to grow food, to protect wildlife. Organic gardens are sprouting in many schools now. Some schools are making great inroads into this area and others could be encouraged to follow suit.

It is here and at home that children can see the benefits of living green, rather than the dangers of not. Rich in an understanding and experience of nature, spurred on by enthusiastic adults, they can then begin the exciting challenge ahead of designing the world they want.

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