Beyond Ecophobia:

Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education

by David Sobel

Just as ethnobotanists are descending on tropical forests in search of new plants for medical uses, environmental educators, parents, and teachers are descending on second and third graders to teach them about the rainforests. From Brattleboro, Vermont to Berkeley, California, school children are learning about tapirs, poison arrow frogs, and biodiversity. They hear the story of the murder of activist Chico Mendez and watch videos about the plight of indigenous forest people displaced by logging and exploration for oil. They learn that between the end of morning recess and the beginning of lunch, more than ten thousand acres of rainforest will be cut down, making way for fast-food, "hamburgerable" cattle.

The motive for all this is honorable and just: if children are aware of the problems of too many people utilizing too few resources, they will grow up to be adults who eat Rainforest Crunch, vote for environmental candidates, and buy energy-efficient cars. They will learn that by recycling their Weekly Readers and milk cartons, they can help save the planet. My fear is that just the opposite is occurring. In our zest for making them aware of and responsible for the world's problems, we cut our children off from their roots.

I confess to contributing money to the Children's Rainforest Project--a group that teaches kids about the rainforest and then funnels money raised from car washes and bake sales to the actual purchase of endangered lands in Costa Rica and Panama. At least this group doesn't just ring alarm bells--it gives kids a sense that they make a difference. But what really happens when we lay the weight of the world's environmental problems on eight and nine year olds already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature?

If we fill our classrooms with examples of environmental abuse, we may be engendering a subtle form of dissociation. In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn to cut themselves off from pain. In severe cases, children develop multiple personalities, other selves that aren't aware of painful experiences. My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum similarly ends up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused and they just don't want to have to deal with it.

For Childhood's Future, a study of the changing nature of childhood at the end of the twentieth century, Richard Louv interviewed children, parents, community groups, and educators across the country. Visiting his own childhood neighborhood and elementary school, he talked with school children and noted that the relationship between children and nature has changed significantly in the last thirty years:

While children do seem to be spending less time physically in natural surroundings, they also seem to worry more about the disappearance of nature--in a global sense--than my generation did...As a boy, I was intimate with the fields and the woods behind my house, and protective of them. Yet, unlike these children, I had no sense of any ecological degradation beyond my small natural universe.

And in response to Louv's question of whether he liked to play indoors or outdoors better, one fourth grader responded, "I like to play indoors better 'cause that's where the electrical outlets are." Children are disconnected from the world outside their doors, and connected with endangered animals and ecosystems around the globe through electronic media.

While children are studying the rainforest, they are not studying the northern hardwood forest, or even just the overgrown meadow outside the classroom door. Lucy Sprague Mitchell, educator and founder of Bank Street College of Education, spoke of the "here and now," the local forest or urban neighborhood, as the basis for her curriculum with six through nine year olds. It is not until children are thinking logically and abstractly enough that she would embark on the "long ago and far away." It is hard enough for children to understand the life cycles of chipmunks and milkweed, organisms they can study close at hand. This is the foundation upon which an eventual understanding of ocelots and orchids can be built.

Some teachers can study both local forests and rainforests, and connect one to the other artfully, but many prefer rainforests because, from a curriculum perspective, they are much tidier to teach. To study the northern hardwood forest, you have to send a note home to parents reminding them that the kids have to wear boots next Tuesday. You have to deal with unruly kids and wind blowing the clipboard paper all over the place. To study rainforests, you can stay inside and look at all the pretty pictures of all those strange and wonderful animals, and make a miniature jungle.

In the face of this dissociation, children still try to make ends meet, to connect the far away and the close-by worlds. A mother recently shared an account of her eight-year-old daughter's afternoon project. Her daughter had been hard at work in the shed, her mom's studio, for more than an hour when she showed up in the kitchen with an elegant poster to be displayed at the general store across the street. Around an attractive illustration of a plump elephant, read the bold edict, conceived in all seriousness, SAVE THE ELEPHANTS. DON'T USE IVORY SOAP. Saving endangered species is just as much the rage as saving the rainforest these days, and so a recent school project on African wildlife had motivated this girl to take protective action. The mistaken connection between the killing of elephants for their ivory tusks and the ingredients of Ivory Soap illustrates the child's desire to make the world right. But wouldn't it make more sense to have this child feel protective of the muskrats in the pond across the street?

Rainforest curriculum may be perfectly appropriate in middle or high school, but it doesn't belong in the primary grades in elementary schools. When I was training to be an elementary school teacher, my professor in a math methods course speculated that if we waited until sixth grade, we could teach all of elementary school mathematics in eight weeks. He believed that if we wait until children's minds have developed more, mathematics would be easier for them to grasp.

Recently, the use of concrete materials (such as cuisinaire rods, fraction bars, and Unifix cubes) and the grounding of math instruction in the stuff and problems of everyday life has improved the teaching of mathematics and helped reduce math phobia. Unable to connect the signs and symbols on the paper with the real world, many children were turning off to math. Adults describing their math phobia often date the beginnings of their problems to third and fourth grade when they just couldn't keep up--their math skills became frozen at the fourth-grade level. For adult math phobics, just the thought of long division can make them short of breath. As in any phobic reaction, the afflicted person feels anxiety and wants to flee from the situation. But with more child-centered math instruction, the problem of math phobia has diminished.

Perhaps to be replaced by ecophobia. Fear of rainforest destruction, acid rain, and Lyme disease. Fear of just being outside. If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems of an adult world, we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength. Let us consider some better ways to support children's biological tendency to bond with the natural world.

What's Important?

A graduate student of mine stumbled upon an intriguing discovery in his research with children last year. My assignment to the teachers in training was to conduct research that allowed them to open doors into the inner lives and thoughts of children. Steve Moore wanted to findout what was important to second graders. He selected twenty-five magazine pictures of children on bicycles, people playing baseball, happy families, toys, dogs, eagles, pretty landscapes, farms, the earth from space, workplaces, and the like. Then he encouraged children to choose three pictures that seemed important and talk about them.

Moore conducted his interviews with forty seven and eight year olds in four different second-grade classrooms in adjoining towns. When he analyzed his results, he found a curious pattern. The children's responses fell into two distinct groups, despite the fact that all four classrooms seemed quite similar on the surface. In two of the classrooms, many children chose the picture of the earth from space, the eagle, and the deer. They talked about saving the planet, stopping pollution, and protecting eagles. They participated in the activity but didn't seem to really enjoy the process.

In the other two classrooms, the children chose pictures of legos, playing baseball, homes, and families as the important things in life. In the interviews, the children seemed energetic and enthusiastic to participate in the discussions.

When Moore saw this pattern, he returned to the classrooms, spoke to the teachers and discovered a possible explanation for the differences. The first two classes had done an extensive Earth Week curriculum shortly before he conducted the interviews. Rainforest pictures were up on the walls, books and stories with environmental topics were in evidence, and one of the classes had just visited a new environmental education center. The second two classes had done very little for Earth Week and almost no environmental curriculum. These teachers were a little sheepish about their apparent avoidance of these issues.

When he looked again at his results from this perspective, he found another pattern. In his total sample he found:
Eighteen comments of concern for the environment (pollution, extinction, etc.). All these comments were made by children in the Earth Week classes.

Sixteen comments of appreciation for the environment (a place where we can live, I like birds, etc.). Seven of these comments were made by children in the Earth Week classes, nine by children in the non-Earth Week classes.

Fifteen comments of appreciation of families. Fourteen of these were made by children in non-Earth Week classes and one by a child in an Earth Week class.

The result, from Moore's perspective, was a kind of despondency among the children in the Earth Week classrooms and a submerging of children's natural interests in a sea of problems:

The whole issue of the Earth Week curriculum was a big eye opener to me. The interview patterns suggest that kids who had spent a week or more working on environmental issues were fully taken in by them. The Earth Week group made choices that were heavily weighted with concerns about the earth, the animals, homeless children. The non-Earth Week classes made choices about playing, about families, about having fun. I think we need to be careful about this kind of curricular brainwashing with children this age.

Though clearly not an exhaustive study, Moore's findings resonate eerily with a study conducted in West Germany during the 1980s, described to me by George Russell of Adelphi University. Concerned about acid rain effects on forests, the ozone hole, heavy metal pollution in European rivers, the aftermath of Chernobyl, and other environmental problems, the Germans implemented a conscientious national curriculum endeavor. The intent was to raise the consciousness of the elementary student body throughout the country regarding environmental problems. By informing students about the problems and showing them how they could participate in finding the solutions, the education ministry hoped to create empowered global citizens. Follow-up studies conducted some years after implementation indicated just the opposite had occurred. As a result of the curriculum initiative, education officials found that students felt hopeless and disempowered. The problems were seemingly so widespread and beyond the students' control that their tendency was to turn away from, rather than face up to, participating in local attempts at problem solving.

If curriculum focused on saving the earth doesn't work, what's the answer? One way to approach this problem is to figure out what contributes to the development of environmental values in adults. What happened in the childhoods of environmentalists, some researchers have asked, to make them grow up with strong ecological values? A handful of these studies have been conducted, and when Louise Chawla of Kentucky State University reviewed these studies she found an intriguing pattern. Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources, "many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature."

What a simple solution. No rainforest curriculum, no environmental action, just opportunities to be in the natural world with modeling by a responsible adult. Chawla noted that, "not one of the conservationists explained his or her dedication as a reaction against exposure to an ugly environment." When the Sierra Club wants to raise money for saving old-growth forests, they send photographs of denuded, eroding hillsides with their donation requests. Defenders of Wildlife raises money by showing us the cuddly harp seal being bludgeoned to death. For adults, with a commitment to preservation and a sense of self firmly in place, this technique appropriately motivates us to action.

What a simple solution. No rainforest curriculum, no environmental action, just opportunities to be in the natural world with modeling by a responsible adult. Chawla noted that, "not one of the conservationists explained his or her dedication as a reaction against exposure to an ugly environment." When the Sierra Club wants to raise money for saving old-growth forests, they send photographs of denuded, eroding hillsides with their donation requests. Defenders of Wildlife raises money by showing us the cuddly harp seal being bludgeoned to death. For adults, with a commitment to preservation and a sense of self firmly in place, this technique appropriately motivates us to action. For young children--kindergarten through third or fourth grade--this technique is counterproductive. Lurking beneath these environmentally correct curricula is the assumption that if children see the horrible things that are happening, then they too will be motivated to make a difference. But those images can have an insidious, nightmarish effect on young children whose sense of time, place, and self are still forming. Newspaper pictures of homes destroyed by California wildfires are disturbing to my seven-year-old New Hampshire daughter because she immediately personalizes them. "Is that fire near here? Will our house burn down? What if we have a forest fire?" she queries, because for her, California is right around a psychic corner.

What's important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it and feel comfortable in it, before being asked to heal its wounds. John Burroughs cautioned that, "Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow." Our problem is that we are trying to invoke knowledge, and responsibility, before we have allowed a loving relationship to flourish.

Bonding with the Earth
We often refer to those moments of wondrous happenstance as being in the right place at the right time. Curriculum often isn't and it's usually too early. To get a sense of when to study rainforests or endangered species, or perhaps how to do environmental curricula at different ages, we need a scheme, a big picture of the relationship between the natural world and the development of the person.

For parents and teachers, it's most important to focus on the three stages of development that are the concern of elementary education: early childhood from ages three to seven, the elementary years from seven to eleven, and early adolescence from eleven to fifteen. The heart of childhood, from seven to eleven, is the critical period for bonding with the earth. Though these age frames need to be considered flexibly, my argument is that environmental education should be tangibly different during each period.

Over the past ten years, I have collected neighborhood maps from hundreds of children in the United States, England, and the Caribbean. From my analysis of these maps and interviews and field trips with these children, I have found clear patterns of development in the relationship between the child and her expanding natural world.

From age four until seven or eight, children's homes fill the center of their maps and much of their play is within sight or earshot of the home. Children often describe the worms, chipmunks, pigeons that live in their yards or on their blocks and feel protective about these creatures.

From eight to eleven, children's geographical range expands rapidly. Their maps push off the edge of the page and they often need to attach extra pieces of paper to map the new terrain they are currently investigating. Children's homes become small, inconsequential, and often move to the periphery of the page. The central focus in these maps is the "explorable landscape."

From eleven to fourteen the maps continue to expand in scope and become more abstract, but the favored places often move out of the woods and into town. Social gathering places such as the mall, the downtown luncheonette, and the town park take on new significance. Annie Dillard captures this fascination with expanding horizons in her description of growing up in Pittsburgh in An American Childhood:

I pushed at my map's edges. Alone at night I added newly memorized streets and blocks to old streets and blocks, and imagined connecting them on foot.... On darkening evenings I came home exultant, secretive, often from some exotic leafy curb a mile beyond what I had known at lunch, where I had peered up at the street sign, hugging the cold pole, and fixed the intersection in my mind. What joy, what relief, eased me as I pushed open the heavy front door!--joy and relief because, from the trackless waste, I had located home, family and the dinner table once again.

At the same time as the child's home becomes less significant, forts and dens show up on children's maps. These special places of childhood, both found and built places, appear to be crucially important for many children from ages eight to eleven. Urban, suburban, and rural children find hidden places even in daunting circumstances, attesting to the importance of finding a place of one's own at this age. Kim Stafford describes this movement:

Here was my private version of civilization, my separate hearth. Back Home, there were other versions of this. I would take any refuge from the thoroughfare of plain living--the doll-house, the tree-house, furniture, the tablecloth tent, the attic, the bower in the cedar tree....

There I pledged allegiance to what I knew, as opposed to what was common. My parents' house was a privacy from the street, from the nation, from the rain. But, I did not make that house, or find it, or earn it with my own money. It was given to me. My separate hearth had to be invented by me, kindled, sustained, and held secret by my own soul as a rehearsal for departure.

These new homes in the wilds, and the journeys of discovering, are the basis for bonding with the natural world. Children desire immersion, solitude, and interaction in a close, knowable world. We take children away from these strength-giving landscapes when we ask them to deal with distant ecosystems and environmental problems. Rather we should be attempting to engage children more deeply in knowing the flora, fauna, and character of their own local places. The woods behind the school and the neighborhoods streets and stores are the places to start.

The Right Places at the Right Times

The challenge for parents and educators is to match activities and engagements with the periods of development in childhood. First, children need to develop emotional empathy for the creatures of the natural world. Next they need safe opportunities to explore their urban and rural landscapes, and finally, they need to have opportunities to work on problems in their local communities.

Empathy between the child and the natural world can be a main objective for children ages three through seven. As children move out into the natural world, we can encourage feelings for the creatures of the world outside. Children feel implicitly drawn to baby animals, so let us cultivate this empathy. This natural emotional connectedness is the foundation of the idea that everything is connected to everything else. Stories, songs, close encounters with animals, and seasonal celebrations are excellent activities.

Cultivating relationships with animals, both real and imagined, is one of the best ways to foster empathy during early childhood. Children love to run like deer, to slither along the ground like snakes, to be clever as a fox and quick like a bunny. There need be no endangered species here--there are more than enough common, everyday species to delight young children.

Take birds for example. How boring it is for children to try to identify birds by catching fleeting glimpses and then looking them up in books. Instead, consider what it is about birds that appeals to children: they fly and they make nests. Knowing that children like to become things rather than objectify them, why not make a set of wings for each child and set them out to experience life as a bird. After a few days of bird play, you might encourage children to paint their wings like one of the birds they'd seen nearby and this eventually can lead to looking at bird books and connecting names to the birds. By first becoming birds, children can slowly learn to step back and look at them without becoming separated from them.

Exploration marks the phase from ages seven to eleven. This is the time to immerse children in the stuff of the physical and natural worlds. Constructing forts, creating small imaginary worlds, hunting and gathering, searching for treasures, following streams and pathways, making maps, taking care of animals, gardening and shaping the earth are perfect activities during this stage.

School activites and family adventures can mirror the expanding scope of the child's significant world, focusing first on the surroundings of the home and school, then the neighborhood, the community, the region, and beyond. The Brookwood School in Manchester, Massachusetts has recently revised its science curriculum to focus on aquatic environments to take advantage of the range of watery places accessible from the school. Starting with a focus on woodland streams in first grade, the curriculum moves down the watershed to ponds in second grade, freshwater wetlands in third grade and eventually out to the ocean by eighth grade. The first graders' streams are right outside the classroom door, the ponds are a bit of a walk, the ocean is a half mile away, so the curriculum expands outward along with the scope of the children's interest and capabilities.

The water cycle isn't something to be taught in two weeks; it is best done over the six or eight years of elementary and middle school. The water courses of the landscape are the circulatory system of the living earth, and we can only learn them by following them, literally and metaphorically. With this in mind, David Millstone, a fifth-grade social studies teacher in Norwich, Vermont recently began a local studies unit with a stream-following expedition. Recognizing the allure of stream following, he initiated a class expedition not knowing where the stream would lead. In a student newspaper about this expedition, one child's poem describes the passage through a long, unanticipated culvert encountered along the way:

by Courtney Wieland

Cold, damp dark
rushing water
suddenly a waterfall
like a gray and white curtain.
Finally light

The children's writing for the newsletter fairly crackles with excitement about discovering something literally in their backyard. This project did not touch directly on acid rain, or groundwater pollution, or drinking water quality, or evaporation and condensation. It did, however, immerse children in exploring streams and understanding, in a personal way, where they go. Wet sneakers and muddy clothes are prerequisites for understanding the water cycle.

Social Action appropriately begins around age eleven and certainly extends beyond age fourteen. While woods, parks, and playgrounds are the landscapes of middle childhood, adolescents want to be downtown. Managing school recycling programs, passing town ordinances, testifying at hearings, planning and going on school expeditions all are appropriate activities at this point. Good school programs will also recognize the need for rites of passage toward the end of this period. Initiation signifies the transition into adulthood with the dual challenges of solitude and social responsibility.

When considering appropriate topics for elementary and middle school aged children, I often suggest the maxim of "No tragedies before fourth grade." Tragedies are big, complex problems beyond the conceptual and geographical scope of young children. Dealing with the nearby sadnesses of children's lives is a different matter. Parents getting divorced, pets dying, a favorite tree being cut down are necessary tragic issues to cope with in the early elementary grades. But curriculum that focuses on environmental problems will be most successful when it starts in fifth and sixth grade and then focuses primarily on local problems where children can make a real difference. Community service programs can show students the relevance of the curriculum and give local organizations a wonderful injection of youthful energy.

In Springfield, Vermont, a partnership program between the Riverside Middle School and the solid waste district is getting students into the community and solid waste managers into the school. After an overview of trash problems and how recycling can play a part in saving the town money and making it a safer place to live, groups of students are challenged to come up with a project that will contribute to the local effort. Kristin Forcier and Lauren Ellis, seventh graders in Pat Magrosky's class, conducted on-the-street surveys and found that only half of the people in the community recycled their car and household batteries. The rest of the batteries were either going into the landfill or getting incinerated, potentially causing groundwater or air pollution.

Lauren said, "I didn't really think that throwing away a can of Raid was that bad until we did this project. When I was little, I didn't really think about it. I just thought my water comes from the faucet and it's clean and it's perfect. Unless, it comes from near the landfill. Then it's just like spraying a can of Raid in your mouth."

So Kristin and Lauren decided to make recycling batteries easier. They got permission from downtown stores to set up battery collection sites at the Price Chopper market, the Citgo station, the Ames department store, and the Bibens Hardware store. They presented the idea to the Springfield Recycling Committee and received a commitment to have volunteers collect the batteries from the collection sites. And they created large informational signs and brochures for each of the collection sites to explain why battery recycling is important for the community. When asked what she had learned from the project, Lauren commented, "A kid can do it, with the help of adults."

Though I have portrayed these stages separately, they are not mutually exclusive. Empathy doesn't stop when exploration starts. Rather, activities that encourage the evolution of empathy should continue throughout the elementary and middle school years. Exploration of the natural world begins in early childhood, flourishes in middle childhood, and continues in adolescence as a pleasure and a source of strength for social action.

After doing the weekly shopping with my seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son last spring, we would put the groceries in the car and take a short walk across the meadow behind the shopping center to an unused railroad trestle. My children wanted to master their fear of walking on the deck of the bridge; they looked through the railroad ties at the moving water below and saw how far each of them could walk without holding my hand. On the way to and fro, we'd also fill up plastic bags with discarded garbage from along the side of the path. The kids named that activity "cleaning up Mother Earth." We probably only did five minutes of picking up but, week to week, it was easy to see the progress we were making. Such action seems fitting for children this age in the context of an engaging exploration. But let's watch out for the downward creep of our activist inclinations, and allow children the communion with nature that provides "intimations of immortality."

Taking Time

I went canoeing with my son Eli and his friend in early April. The plan was to canoe a two-mile stretch of the Ashuelot River, an hour in adult time. Instead, we spent a lot of time netting golf balls swept down from the upstream golf course off the bottom of the river. We hadn't planned this activity, but the boys were thrilled by it and it meant we spent a lot of time looking down into the shallows and depths of the river with a purpose. Which meant that we also wound up doing a lot of fish and bug watching too. We stopped at the mouth of a tributary stream for a picnic and went for a long adventure through a maze of marshy streams and abandoned flood plain oxbows. We tiptoed the tops of beaver dams, hopped hummocks, went wading (Eli called it "shallowing"), looked at spring flowers, tried to catch a snake, got lost and found. How fine it was to move at a meandery, child's pace.

The temptation to rush down the river is a trap waiting to catch parents and educators. Suffering from the timesickness of trying to do too much too quickly, we infect our children with our impatience. We make children do workbooks in kindergarten, we let seven year olds watch Jurassic Park, and we bombard them with tragic anxiety. After the Oklahoma bombing, a sixth-grade teacher asked his students what they thought of the television coverage and one student spoke for many of them when she said, "It's not good to show so much on television because kids see children all bloody and dead and it makes us scared about growing up in the world."

Some teachers are putting on the brakes. Jo Anne Kruschak, a first- and second-grade teacher in Thetford, Vermont, is spending a whole year doing a project on a local beaver pond and marsh this year. Most nature study or environmental education in American elementary schools lasts a matter of weeks. As a result, depth is sacrificed to breadth, and there's little opportunity for immersion in the landscape. But these first and second graders have visited the pond, about a quarter mile from the school, once a week through all kinds of weather. "In the beginning," Kruschak recalls, "I thought we'd run out of things to do and study by Thanksgiving. Now, I realize that there's no way we can follow up on all the neat opportunities by the end of the year."

The Harris Center for Conservation Education, located in the Monadnock highlands of southwestern New Hampshire, is one of the environmental education centers also taking the long view in designing its programs. Since Harris Center educators work with children and students throughout the elementary years, they have the time to let children bond with the natural world. Their school program brochure, entitled "Turning Science Inside Out," says:
By the end of their journey with the Harris Center, students will have watched birds, searched for amphibians and insects, studied animal tracks, mushrooms and wild foods, surveyed wetlands, mapped local watersheds, learned the geological history of mountains in their area and tested the air and river quality. With one foot in snowshoe and the other in muck, we trek together learning the sweetness that comes with knowing the terrain.
If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it. Perhaps this is what Thoreau had in mind when he said, "the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings."


David Sobel is director of teacher certification programs in the education department at Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, New Hampshire. He is the author of Mapmaking with Children: Sense-of-Place Education for the Elementary Years, published by Heinemann (1998), and Children's Special Places, published by Zephyr Press (1993).

If you'd like to order these (and other) books, please visit The Orion Society Bookstore.

This essay was originally published in the Autumn 1995 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail them at An expanded version of this essay, complete with bibliographic resources, was also published as part of The Orion Society's Nature Literacy Series. This monograph can also be ordered from The Marketplace on the Orion Society website.

Lastly, The Orion Society has published Bringing the World Alive, a bibliography of nature stories for children, also available at The Marketplace.