Sense of Wonder
What inspires people to participate in green behaviors, become advocates for conservation and protection of natural spaces? According to Louise Chawla (2006), positive experiences of natural areas in childhood and family role models. For a research project she asked environmental activists: How would you explain the sources of your commitment to protect the environment? What personal experiences turned you in this direction and inspired you to pursue it? She interviewed activists from Kentucky and Norway and people from both areas had similar answers. A majority of participants recalled places where they played as children or hiked as adolescents. About three-quarters or more of each sample also talked about family members who directed their attention to elements of the natural world: usually a parent, but sometimes a grandparent, uncle, or older sibling. The third most frequent explanation that people gave for their activism, reported by more than half of each sample, was participation in an organization such as scouting. Although other reasons that people gave for their environmentalism are also important-- including education and witnessing pollution or habitat destruction–these reasons were cited by less than half of each sample. A succession of studies which have asked activists or environmental educators what inspired their commitment to the environment have reported similar results (Chawla 1998, Tanner 1998, 1999, Eigner & Schmuck 1998, cited in Bögeholz 2006). In countries as far flung as England, Germany, Greece, Slovenia, Australia, Canada, El Salvador and South Africa, from half to more than 80% of the respondents mention childhood experiences of nature as a significant influence. Typically, they mention family members or other role models equally often or second in importance.
This study reminded me of Rachel Carson’s less know publication, The Sense of Wonder. In this book Carson describes her relationship with her young nephew as she introduced him to the wonders of the forests and coasts of Maine. She speaks to the importance of exposing children to nature for inspiring a sense of awe and wonder. She says: Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
So, nature experience for children has many benefits. It can inspire earth friendly behaviors, environmental activism and it also builds character. When do children actually have opportunities to experience nature and develop this sense of wonder in our modern world? Today, most children spend half of their waking hours in front of a screen. Urban children may not have safe access to green spaces and rarely have an opportunity to play in an actual wild space. I have discussed Louv’s nature deficit disorder in previous posts and David Orr refers to it in his latest book, Dangerous Years. Orr also speaks to the inadequacy of our education system in providing environmental context to what and how we teach. He says we need to “transend the industrial-technological model of learning.” Shouldn’t what students learn in school equip them with the analytical, practical and emotional skills to be competent and caring stewards of the ecosphere. Just when and how will these children learn a reverence for life and a sense of wonder for nature? How can we overcome the problem of nature deficit disorder?
I think we need to have classes in natural or green spaces, as well as in communities. We need to get them out of the four walls of a sterile building to recognize that the world is our classroom and purpose for learning. Schooling has become an exercise in memorization and regurgitation of information. Place-based or outdoor environmental education gives context and meaning to why we learn. It will allow children to directly experience nature and maybe develop love and caring for the environment. Teachers can become that beloved adult who guides their students through nature experiences in the expansion of their world. I have been that teacher for my students and those experiences outdoors with them have been richly rewarding to me.