March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Conservation and Primary Students

Posted: Friday, April 8th, 2016

by Joey Noelle Lehnhard

As an educator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I think about conservation a lot. The mission of the Aquarium is “to inspire conservation of the ocean,” and that straight-forward principle is at the center of everything we do. For teacher professional development, we host workshops that focus on current marine issues, such as ocean acidification, biodiversity, overfishing, oil spills, and ocean plastic pollution. However, my focus is on elementary education, and inspiring conservation in 2nd graders requires something very different.

Sometimes, as educators who care deeply about the environment, we think that our elementary students can handle these dense topics. We want our curriculum to be rigorous and so we boil down complex concepts into something that they can relate to and understand. Sometimes that works out, but, in the case of conservation education, it can backfire.

It’s called ecophobia (Sobel, 1996). And we all probably know someone who (unknowingly) suffers from it. It manifests itself in a persistent sense of powerlessness with regard to a variety of environmental issues. It’s the person who litters, thinking that just one piece of trash doesn’t really matter. It’s the hiker who jumps the fence protecting young saplings, thinking one person’s footsteps won’t make a difference. It can also result in aversion to or fear of the outdoors and nature. Often, these effects don’t reveal themselves until long after students have left our classrooms. Introducing young students to real issues makes an impact but perhaps not always the impact we want. So what should we do to more appropriately build students’ conservation ethic and love for nature?

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Young students need extended, frequent, positive experiences in nature to develop a sense and appreciation of a particular place (Kudryavtsev, Stedman, & Krasny, 2012). These places should not be just any outdoor place but an outdoor space in their own community. In fact, the best thing we can do as educators (or parents) to help kids develop a conservation ethic is make sure they have extended positive experiences in nature as children (Palmer, 1993). When students experience and learn about the plants, animals, habitats, and ecosystems nearest to them first, they can better translate that knowledge to places farther away. This is why it is so important to thoroughly investigate our own schoolyards before we start teaching about more exotic places like rainforests or the arctic tundra.

This doesn’t mean that we have to shy away from every conservation topic. Primary elementary students can be empowered when they do something good for the open spaces around them. Connecting with animals is a powerful way to build toward pro-environmental behaviors and attitudes. They can also learn to have good environmental manners in their time outdoors. They can pick up litter, recycle, stay on trails, use water wisely, and be careful with and kind to living things. They can also engage in projects that will help their local environment like building bird boxes, planting trees, gardening, or removing invasive plants (Ardoin, 2013).

The Next Generation Science Standards outline a progression of topics in the Disciplinary Core Idea ESS3.C – Human impacts on Earth systems. The kindergarten through second grade section says, “Things people do can affect the environment but they can make choices to reduce their impacts.” ESS3.D – Climate Change is not even applicable until middle school.

So what does all this mean when thinking about conservation of the ocean and complex, current, environmental marine issues? It means that PreK-2nd grade teachers who teach along the coast should teach about the ocean because it is local and therefore relevant to their students. Those students should engage in ocean-side investigations and beach cleanups. It means that inland teachers should teach about their own local habitats and leave addressing more abstract or distant ecosystems to later grades. It means we should take the time to explore and build connections with nearby outdoor spaces and with the unique plants and animals that live there (Bora, McCrea, Herrmann, Hutchison, Pistillo, & Wirth 2010). We should feel confident that time spent this way is time well-spent, both for our students and for our Earth.

Bibliography

Ardoin, N. (2013). Influencing conservation action: What research says about environmental literacy, behavior, and conservation results. National Audubon Society.

Bora, S., McCrea, E., Gay, M., Herrmann, L., Hutchison, L., Pistillo, M., & Wirth, S. (2010). Early childhood environment education programs: Guidelines for excellence. The North American Association for Environmental Education Publications, Washington.

Kudryavtsev, A., Stedman, R. C., & Krasny, M. E. (2012). Sense of place in environmental education. Environmental education research, 18(2), 229-250.

Palmer, J. A. (1993). Development of concern for the environment and formative experiences of educators. The Journal of Environmental Education, 24(3), 26-30.

Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education (No. 1). Orion Society.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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