The first marker on any map is not the discovery of where you’d like to go but where you are. Our particular context is key in the pursuit of environmental stewardship to the glory of God. A rural classroom facing a clean water crisis will have different priorities than that of an urban classroom aiming to make healthy, garden-grown food accessible to students. Identifying your own where includes the cultural and seasonal landscapes, as well as the physical parameters. Kozak and Elliot note that “learning locally emphasizes what is close to the school for the very young and extends beyond as students develop” (13). It is also about identifying where you are in terms of your own relationship to the land you are about to teach in partnership with. No lesson plan or methodology can produce a harvest without first being planted in native soil. Young developing brains do not yet have abstract thinking, meaning that accessible proximity to local, place-based systems and relationships must be central to any learning strategy. Land stewardship is something we grow into, much like spiritual maturity. Disciples come to understand that the true concept of knowing is not intellectual but a practiced, immersive experience over time. I might know about God’s grace, but I come to experience it when I am desperate to receive it. I might know about the life cycle of a seed, but I come to experience it as I impatiently wait and tend to my tomato plant before finally tasting its fruit. I might know that it is God’s good plan for us to be in relationship to the land, but I experience it on the forest floor when my mind clears and my body relaxes.
I might know that it is God’s good plan for us to be in relationship to the land, but I experience it on the forest floor when my mind clears and my body relaxes.
As a researcher, classroom teacher, and mom of three, I have found that environmental stewardship in the early years of education is much like discipleship: honed in close contact to people and to the context that you find yourself in. The practices below act much like a trellis for the wild vine of the human learner. They are not innovative or extraordinary, but they do require intentionality, a posture of humility, and a willingness to wake up and into the world of God’s here and now.
The Practice of Origin and Belonging through Storytelling
We are people hardwired for meaning through stories. As families, we tell the tales of where we have come from, and as followers of Jesus, we retell the stories that continue to form our identity as children of God. But what about the stories of the land we have been formed from and the plant life that precedes us? Building a classroom collection of nature origin stories, and using them as provocations to explore the world, is a wonderful place to start. Finding an outdoor meeting place to read these stories will enhance the senses and increase student tolerance for the natural elements. You may include Indigenous stories like “The Three Sisters” or the Mi’kmaq creation story. But as botany professor and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer points out, “An immigrant culture must write its own new stories of relationship to place . . . tempered by the wisdom of those who were old on this land long before we came” (344). Gather in a sharing circle and tell of your own growing relationship with the land, opening up space for students to share their most memorable nature experience or favorite tree. These intimate exchanges remind us that we belong as much to the earth as we do to ourselves or our families. It also gives clarity of where you are beginning together as a learning community. Collecting natural artifacts from your school neighborhood might begin as a land survey, but it can become art material to make self-portraits. Allow students to learn the stories of the flora they have chosen to integrate into their artwork, and how they see their own stories intersect as a part of the created, natural world. Weaving scientific inquiry with songs and art gives meaning and accessibility to complex concepts. Kimmerer writes,
Gather in a sharing circle and tell of your own growing relationship with the land, opening up space for students to share their most memorable nature experience or favorite tree.
The very facts of the world are a poem. Light is turned into sugar. . . . The saliva of grazing buffalo causes the grass to grow taller. . . . Microbes in industrial waste can destroy mercury. Aren’t these stories we should all know? . . . Yet scientists mostly convey these stories in a language that excludes readers. (345)
The power and wonder of story is not only that it is a window through which to see yourself and the world around you, but that it is a captivating way to remember and retell those truths over and over again—perhaps even to pass them on to a willing listener.
Giving each student a sketchbook or lined journal as a form of ongoing assessment gives you a window into what is important, how each child sees the world, and what questions and misconceptions they may have about the nature being studied.
The Practice of Observation and Gratitude through Nature Journaling
Giving each student a sketchbook or lined journal as a form of ongoing assessment gives you a window into what is important, how each child sees the world, and what questions and misconceptions they may have about the nature being studied. It also provides a form to practice the necessary observation skills to cultivate gratitude for even the smallest living things. Naturalist, educator, and artist John Muir Laws encourages teachers and students alike to begin this lifelong method whether or not they consider themselves to be an artist:
There are ways of unlocking the mysteries around us by heightening observations, intensifying our curiosity, and giving ourselves a place to make meaning out of everything that we see. . . . A nature journal is where we take all the observations, the questions, the connections, and the explanation we make for everything that we see around us, and we take it out of our head and get it onto a piece of paper using words, pictures, and numbers. (Laws 0:00:32)
For younger students, you can begin with bringing outside elements into the classroom to build the components of drawing, labeling, and questioning in a more controlled environment. Once the expectations are clearly understood, those journaling skills can be transferred to outdoor spaces.
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Elliot, Susan, and Stan Kozak. Connecting the Dots: Key Strategies that Transform Learning. Forest Stewardship Council, 2014.
Kimmerer, Robin. Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Kostamo, Leah. Planted. Cascade Books, 2013.
John Muir Laws, “The Nature Journal Connection.” YouTube, 28 Oct. 2020, youtu.be/0Fb65ZOjBDA.
Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees. Greystone Books, 2016.
Nicole Fletcher has an MA in Education and Child Study and is a member of the BEd faculty at Tyndale University in Toronto, Canada, teaching environmental education to teacher candidates. You can often find her exploring the Bruce Trail with her husband and three young children.