Our Children Are The Stewards Of Tomorrow

JACOB RODENBURG – Being an environmental educator in today’s world feels like you are asked to stop a rushing river armed only with a teaspoon. Teaching children about these formidable challenges seems daunting, overwhelming and at times, well – hopeless. And despite our best efforts, things just seem to get worse.

Perhaps, like a reversed telescope, environmental education is being looked at in the wrong way. Instead of dealing with reactions to problems and trying to solve environmental issues as they arise, it may be worthwhile to think about the type of citizen we want for our earth. Or, as Simeon Ogonda, a youth development leader from Kenya, asks:

“Many of us often wonder what kind of planet we’re leaving behind for our children. But few ask the opposite: what kind of children are we leaving behind for our planet?”

Raising environmentally engaged citizens involves all of us in fostering the stewards of tomorrow.

The sense of urgency is greater than ever.

Studies show rising levels of anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anti-social behaviour in children.

A sedentary, indoor lifestyle where the average child spends more than 7 hours per day in front of a glowing screen and less than 20 minutes per day in active outdoor play, is leading to unprecedented rates of childhood obesity. Today’s children may be the first in generations not to live as long as their parents. Evidence is mounting that childhood exposure to nature reduces stress, improves physical and mental health, stimulates creativity, builds self-esteem and encourages co-operation, collaboration and self- regulation.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv explains that children need contact with nature (or as he calls it – Vitamin “N”) as an essential part of a healthy childhood. Joy Palmer, an environmental educational researcher, found that regular exposure to nature is the single most important factor in fostering care and concern for the environment.

So where will tomorrow’s stewards will come from? Charting the Path

Teaching environmental education should not be the domain of specialists – outdoor centres and environmental educators. Truly fostering environmental citizens of tomorrow involves our entire community: parents, grandparents, educators, schools, organizations, community leaders, health professionals, municipal officials and businesses. A unique approach to this community-based, environmental education is right here in Peterborough Ontario − “The Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship.

This framework for environmental education, centers on stewardship, and is anchored in Indigenous ways of knowing. The Anishinaabe word ““Nwiikaanigana” (roughly meaning ‘all my relations’) embodies the idea that we are part of a much larger family that includes the natural world.

“Stewardship” can be defined as a sense of connection to, caring about and responsibility for each other and the natural world around us. It involves personal action for the well-being of both natural and human communities by providing children with the right tools and experiences at every age to know, love, respect and protect the very life systems that sustain and nurture us all. Being a steward should not imply entitlement or power or dominion over the earth. Rather, it means teaching children how to become engaged citizens of and for the earth. That is why we also included the word “kinship” – a First Nations perspective that sees nature as integral to our community, our “neighbourwood.”

The Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship emerged from a conversation between a group of community stakeholders in Peterborough, Ontario including: educators, professors, Indigenous leaders, public health officials and conservationists. They wanted to co-ordinate their multiple efforts to promote stewardship throughout all ages and stages of a child’s development. The group researched environmental education, Indigenous teachings, child development and the factors promoting mental and physical health in children. Using the model of environmental sensitivity research, they interviewed more than eighty community leaders interested in environmental issues to explore what formative childhood experiences shaped their interest in the environment. The group felt that incorporating themes from these interviews into the results of their meta-research could provide a solid foundation for a workable community stewardship framework.

The Elements of Stewardship that emerged from the research and from the in-depth interviews can be summarized as follows:

Tending and Caring. In order to value all life, children need to practice caring. Like a muscle, caring is one that should be exercised repeatedly – by gardening, looking after a pet, raising monarch butterflies. Caring requires empathy and compassion: a deliberate attempt to imagine what it must be like from another being’s point of view. In essence, caring is about developing relationships. From caring flows reciprocity – the mindful act of giving back. From reciprocity emerges respect. And a sense of respect engenders a sense of responsibility – wanting to take action because you care. These four “R’s” are central in Anishinaabe teachings.

Awe and wonder: The engine of learning is curiosity. Curiosity is fueled by a healthy sense of awe and wonder. Adults need this sense for a positive and healthy connection to the environment, and provide our children with opportunities to discover, explore and engage with nature.

Overcoming Fear: Language has power. To cultivate a sense of wonder, we need the language of wonder. Words can inspire or discourage. Saying “put that down, don’t touch that, it is dirty,” sends a coded message to children that the outdoors is dangerous. But, saying something like “wow, look what you’ve found, isn’t it amazing,” celebrates the child’s potential to be part of an ever-unfolding journey of discovery. Building comfort and security outdoors is something we can all learn and encourage. The real danger of being outside is minimal and can be managed by anticipating risks and putting in place reasonable safeguards (dressing appropriately for the weather, staying together, being sun aware, having a back-up plan and cellphone, knowing health concerns etc.)

Sense of place: Developing a sense of comfort and belonging means spending enough time outdoors in the same place to become deeply familiar and connected with it. A particular attachment to a place when growing up fosters a sense of place and becomes part of our identity. It is important to give children plenty of time to develop those deep attachments to place, like a favourite park or green space. Overwhelmingly, the community leaders interviewed for the Pathway to Stewardship Initiative cited special natural places that they grew to know and love as a key part of their childhood.

Interconnectedness: Children benefit from learning how their lives are connected to the lives of other people and other living things. We use the same air, the same water. The food we eat contains nutrients that have been shared by many others for millennia. This understanding reinforces the innate need to belong. Stewardship understands that we are part of a community that extends far beyond close friends and relatives to include all the living and non-living systems that support us all. And everything we do, the consequences of every decision taken does not end in the present, but echoes into the near and distant future.

Mentors: In both the research and discussions with community leaders, having access to a caring mentor is central in developing stewardship. In the early years, this is usually a close relative – a parent or grandparent who spends time with the child, exploring together and sharing the delights of discovery. As a child grows older, a mentor is often a teacher or a youth leader who becomes a trusted and admired role model.

Time to explore and discover: Both research and feedback from community leaders points to the benefits of limiting screen time – television, computer and cell phones. Too much screen time limits physical activity, impairs social and creative development and serves to disconnect children from their natural surroundings. Community leaders recalled their “free range” time to explore nearby nature. Time to play, romp and discover fosters initiative, independence, stimulates creativity and promotes resilience.

Engaged Action: Everyone, no matter their age or ability, can do something positive for the environment. Tending a garden, raising butterflies, caring for a natural area, reducing energy consumption, are some simple ways we empower youth to make a positive impact in their own community. From an Indigenous perspective, acting with responsibility means responding with our abilities (response-ability). Remember the idea of agency; kids can solve a problem if given the right tools and strategies for their age. Every positive action leads to a sense of hope. And every bit of hope is empowering. As kids grow older, they can begin to explore sustainable living: reducing their carbon footprint, using alternatives to fossil fuels, learning about product life cycles and issues of social justice.

How to Nurture Stewards

Recognize that children at different ages respond in markedly different ways. Well-meaning educators may want to talk to small children about imminent dangers of climate change and global warming; but small children simply don’t have the cognitive faculties to process such large and multi-dimensional issues. Building on a sense of wonder and awe, educators can start by modelling empathy and respect for all life. As children begin to learn about how the world functions, they understand the impacts that people have, and explore solutions to their community’s challenges. As youth develop leadership skills by participating in local action, they develop confidence, a sense of agency and belonging.

This is a call for educators, parents, community leaders and youth groups to coordinate efforts in order to take collective responsibility for fostering stewardship.

Every community has its own resources and opportunities for environmental education. Every community has its environmental challenges. And despite best intentions, environmental education initiatives are often delivered in an ad hoc and siloed manner by individual schools and/or by individual organizations.

How the Pathway to Kinship and Stewardship is structured

The project is organized around 30 Landmarks – specific experiences geared to each age and stage of a child’s development. The landmarks emerged from the themes and principles described in the Pathway’s research. They build sequentially, helping to develop the skills, knowledge and experiences that create a culture of stewardship. For example, a Landmark for Grade 5 and 6 is “Explore biodiversity by finding out what lives in a wetland, forest or meadow.” For each Landmark, detailed activity suggestions and resources are also offered.

In the end, it takes the heart and conviction of a village to raise a steward. Let’s venture on the Pathway together!

LEARN ABOUT the Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship project here: www.pathwayproject.ca

Over 125 classes and 11 childcare centres as well as families and community groups are participating in the Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship Project, thanks to a generous donation from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Jacob Rodenburg is the Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, an award-wining camp, outdoor and environmental learning centre, author of the Book of Nature Connection and co-author of The Big Book of Nature Activities (New Society Press).

The original version of this article was first published in Green Teacher 113 (Summer 2017) Jacob thanks Cathy Dueck and all the members of the Pathway Team for their invaluable contributions to this project.

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