Thursday, October 15, 2009

Educating for Global Change

Today is Blog Action Day sponsored by, and the topic this year is Global Climate Change. Here at Wellspring, we try to do our part for the environment. We compost and minimize trash. We encourage parents to pack waste-free lunches. We provide wholesome, organic snacks for our students. Many of our families are vegetarian. We avoid the use of plastics in our classroom and other play areas. We encourage outdoor exploration and introduce our students to the beauty and wonder of nature.

What we do not do is engage our students in conversations about the nitty-gritty of global climate change - polar bears and melting ice caps, carbon dioxide versus methane, water shortages and food security, changing weather patterns.

According to environmental educator David Sobel in his book Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, children go through three developmental stages as they bond with the Earth. The first stage, Empathy, is from ages four through seven. (Sobel is primarily concerned with teaching about the environment in schools; as a parent I would argue that the Empathy stage is really from birth to age seven.) The second stage, Exploration, is from ages eight to eleven, and the Social Action stage is from twelve to fifteen. In other words, it is not until adolescence that children possess the necessary level of emotional and intellectual sophistication to understand the complexity and abstraction of global issues and activism. Young children see things in black and white, but the big problems of our day are painted in many shades of gray. Therefore, it is best to spend the pre-adolescent years developing a deep bond between children and their environments and teaching by example so that they are motivated to take action when they are older.

If we introduce children to the huge problems of the adult world before they are ready, this can lead to a feeling of apathy and dissociation, similar to the way that children exposed to media violence become immune to all violence including that occurring in real life. "If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems beyond their understanding and control, prematurely recruit them to solve the mammoth problems of an adult world," says Sobel, "then I think we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength."

Think how fearful and hopeless you may sometimes feel when thinking about big global issues like climate change, and then try to imagine how hopeless a child would feel given the fact that their capacity for understanding and their power to effect change is in its infancy. This is not what we want for our children. What we want to do is empower our them to, in Sobel's words, "take a vested interest in healing the wounds of past generations while devising feasible, sustainable practices and policies for the future." The way to do this is to provide our children with "immersion, solitude, and interaction in a close, knowable world."


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