Nature experiences and empathy—see the March issues of journals for early childhood educators

Cover of Science and Children, NSTA journalBoth the NSTA journal Science and Children, and the NAEYC journal Young Children, were especially riveting this month, March of 2012. I quickly look through the journals to get a feel for the issue, and then put them in my reading bag or pile, unless I happen to be sitting down to the rare quiet meal by myself—then I begin to read from cover to cover. This month I’ve read them little by little and here are a few thoughts. Please get these journals and read them yourselves, and then comment below to share your thoughts.

Teacher and child closely examine a flower.In the Early Years column I suggest that a water source such as a birdbath can attract animals close enough to the school to observe, and collect data by drawing. On a walking fieldtrip today just around the playground and school building my preschoolers saw many signs of spring, including flowering paw-paw and Bradford pear trees, forsythia flowers, Cabbage White butterflies, and a starling carrying pine needles from the big tree up to a hole in a pipe to build a nest. Nature is waiting for us just outside the door.

The Bradford pear trees in my community are in full bloom this week—beautiful when in a still picture and on a still afternoon but troublesome in the real world, especially on a windy day or in a heavy snowfall when their limbs are likely to break, or when they spread into a wild natural area. Read about how teachers developed the role-play to engage fifth-grade students in understanding scientific inquiry, ecosystems, diversity, and risks and benefits in Banishing Bradford Pears by Cynthia Deaton and Michelle Cook. Then think of an environmental problem that is within the control of your younger students, and role-play on how to effect change. The problems that preschool age children can fix are ones we are familiar with: the sandbox is almost empty because the sand has been carried to other parts of the school yard, a classroom toy is missing parts because they were not put away when last used, the paper towel dispenser has run out because people are using two and three towels when one would be enough, or the plants in the garden are wilted because no one has watered them.

Establishing the habit of stewardship, or taking care of the environment, can start before appreciation of why this is important takes root. Even though we model good manners and environmental stewardship, our students may not copy our behavior so we can provide experiences that highlight how important these behaviors are. There will always be a range of expression of empathy in a class but by requiring “pleases” and “thank-yous” we set expectations for children as they grow. When “we all clean up to make our classroom a pleasing place” is a community expectation, it becomes a habit that we hope will carry over into the larger world. (Do you have a favorite clean-up song or signal for your classroom?)

I agree with what David Sobel says in his 2008 Focus the Nation presentation at Antioch University, Global Climate Change Meets Ecophobia. He said, “My desire is to approach this from a perspective that maximizes hope. If we lead with all the tragic implications of climate change, then we risk scaring children into despair. In Beyond Ecophobia I suggested, ‘No (environmental) tragedies before fourth grade.’” You can watch this presentation online at http://old.antiochne.edu/focusthenation/ecophobia_sobel.cfm

What will make children become environmental stewards? I think that the caring community described in the Young Children article, “One Mommy Breast and One Daddy Breast: Encountering Illness as Emergent Curriculum” is what will help young children develop a sense of responsibility for others and develop their ability to take action. In the article, a teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer said this about how she would tell the children she worked with about her illness and the treatment process she would be going through.  “…We have dealt with difficult topics before—a knee surgery, and the death of a family pet. I believe children are capable, ready to engage, to learn. Gandini’s quote on the image of children is the one I hold on to:

All children have preparedness, potential, curiosity, and interest in constructing their learning; in engaging in social interactions and negotiating everything that the environment brings them. (Gandini, L. 1993. “The Fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education,” Young Children 49 (1): 4-8)

If you believe this, it’s a no-brainer that cancer is an illness that would be discussed, documented, researched, and experienced in the classroom.”

The teacher did not exclude the children from taking the journey with her but she did not begin by describing the seriousness of her illness. The children responded with actions which were within their power—with matter-of-fact questions and discussion, making hats and hair for the teacher and wearing headscarves until they were able to accept her baldness caused by chemotherapy. This teacher and the other authors ask, “Does it protect the children to keep them apart from it [knowledge of serious illness]? Or does it isolate and remove children’s power to act?” They also said “It is not that adults would ask the children to do so [take on the responsibility of supporting an ill teacher], but that their empathy and care contributed in an essential way to the healing of others.”

Young child stomping in a rain puddle.Sobel reports that involvement with local nature experiences is strongly tied to environmental stewardship. The March 2012 issue of Science and Children focuses on ways to get teachers and students outside to have those direct experiences with nature. By supporting children’s development of empathy and their ability to act, as shown in the Young Children article, and providing direct experiences as part of the local nature, teachers can foster children’s love of the environment and stewardship actions appropriate to their age and ability.

Peggy

 

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3 Comments

  1. Marie Faust Evitt
    Posted March 25, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    I agree that both March journal issues contained thought-provoking articles and I appreciate your ideas for how young children can be problem solvers at school:
    “The problems that preschool age children can fix are ones we are familiar with: the sandbox is almost empty because the sand has been carried to other parts of the school yard, a classroom toy is missing parts because they were not put away when last used, the paper towel dispenser has run out because people are using two and three towels when one would be enough, or the plants in the garden are wilted because no one has watered them.”
    I’m going to brainstorm with my preschool class how to address our wilted plant problem. Children love watering but we don’t have a plan so watering happens randomly. Thank you for the inspiration.

  2. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted March 25, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    One teacher told me that she stationed a rain/water barrel near her school raised bed even though it was not attached to a downspout. The teachers filled it in the morning with a hose and thoughout the day the students got water from the barrel tap themselves to water the garden.
    Marie, you might ask your class if watering should be on the class job chart or a responsibility that is rotated like being a Line Leader. Then the entire class will be keeping track of who is doing the job. Please let us know what ideas your class comes up with!

  3. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Early childhood teacher, author and blogger Kassia Omohundro Wedekind wrote a poem about mathematics and spring pear blossoms.

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