As an outdoor educator I have become curious as to why ‘nature’ seems to be assumed as ‘good’, especially with regards to children’s education, and whether this notion of ‘good nature’ aligns with notions of environmental sustainability. After all, children are the ones most likely to face the consequences of climate change (Alderson and Morrow, 2011). In this sense I have become aware of two phenomena. First, an increase in the adoption of outdoor ‘nature’ related approaches in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings whose associated practices suggest a normalised view that ‘nature’ is ‘good’ for children. Second, my philosophical musings with young children I work with suggest that children are in the process of constructing ‘nature’. Hence, it seems straightforward to assume the presence of nature in Early Years settings with a construction of ‘nature as good’, would impact positively upon young children’s constructions in a way that is ‘good for nature’.
Urry (2000, p. 127) proposes nature is a learned construct that differs between and within societies. Moreover, parents’ and carers’ understandings of nature become important if we consider children as “a social group [that] relates to other social groups”, shaped by “adult understandings of children and childhood” and operating within the wider fabric of society (Mayall 1994, p. 7-8). Therefore, it seems adults influence children’s nature constructions. Equally, however, children can, and do, resist adult ideas as they too construct their own social ideas (Mayall, 1994). Moreover, constructions of nature take place alongside other constructions relating to everyday life, such as economic consumption practices, that also contribute to the social and cultural norms of people’s lives.
In considering human relationship to nature, Wilson (1993, p. 31) proposes ‘biophilia’ as an “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms”. Biophilia is a gene-culture evolutionary theory that suggests rules for successfully interacting with the (natural) world that are hereditary and persist within genes and the human psyche. Biophilic human responses might manifest positively to things that benefited survival and negatively to those that threatened it (Ulrich, 1993, p.75). Building on Wilson’s idea of biophilia, Kellert (1993) claims nine values of nature that define ways in which humans interact with it. These might be viewed positively or negatively depending on one’s context and worldview. I wish to ‘play’ with some of these values in order to provoke and trouble a normative and everyday understanding of ‘nature as good’. In so doing, I also consider whether ‘nature as good’ is also consistent with what is also ‘good’ for ‘nature’. This helps me think further about children’s relationship with nature to ponder how they might live sustainably with climate change as they grown into adulthood themselves.
Setting the scene
ECEC in the UK is predominantly a private business sector yet it is accountable to the state via OFSTED and regulated by policy in the form of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (DfE, 2017). Thus, ECEC is subject to political policies and governing party ideologies enforced by OFSTED . The current EYFS places emphasis on ‘school readiness’ with numeracy and literacy as its main purpose (Brogaard Clausen, 2015). This assumes the child – first and foremost – as an ‘economic unit’ (Dahlberg et al., 2013) who might assert their individual freedom and achieve equality of opportunity through becoming a socially mobile subject, regardless of their background and upbringing (Davies and Bansel, 2007). As a dynamic of this ECEC system in England, parent/carers assert their own freedoms to make choices as customers so the market construct means parent/carers ideas of what is of value for young children must be taken seriously. We might therefore assert that it is parents, as market moulders, that have been a driving force behind an up-take of outdoor nature-based approaches, such as ‘Forest School’, within ECEC settings. Whilst some advocates may view some ‘Forest School’ marketing strategies and approaches as undermining something of its values and ideals (Lightfoot, 2019), a parent demand for nature-based approaches suggests a common view that ‘nature’ is essential to children’s education.
Nature as good
It is not in the least surprising that parents of young children regard ‘nature as good’ considering the urgency and frequency of media headlines that suggest this is the case. Media stories concur with a range of research literature, finding nature to be necessary to physical and mental health, wellbeing and children’s holistic development and learning, including ideas of building resilience and self-esteem (Chawla, 2015). Kellert (2002) proposes that direct contact with nature is not only essential for children’s healthy maturation but promotes pro-environmental attitudes in children that persist into adulthood. ‘Nature as good’ for human health and wellbeing resonates with Wilson’s (1993) view that humans are inseparable from nature and preserving nature as key to human survival is a keen tenet of his argument. Yet, the suggestion that as a species we need to preserve nature indicates that even though we might be aware of the value of nature for our health, wellbeing and survival, we persist in behaviours that also destroy it.
In Victorian times ‘fresh air’ and a ‘change of scenery were considered good for the health; previous to this, nature had been viewed as wild, dangerous and unpleasant (Urry, 2000). In the early 20th century, fresh air became a central tenet for ECEC pioneers such as the McMillan sisters who declared “earth, sun and air…” to be great healers and designed their outdoor nurseries around this ethos (Hallowes, 2015). Their work was a response to the squalor and poverty that young children, unable to access school, were left to play in whilst their parents worked in factories. It seems therefore that a societal negativistic view of nature, experienced as a “fear or aversion”, can shift towards an aesthetic view, “the physical beauty of nature”, when humans are faced with challenging urbanised conditions perceived as threatening their safety (Kellert, 1993, p. 49). In today’s rapidly changing globalised world, with children themselves, subject to various social constructions, this shift in the perception of nature appears to reconfigure it, in the eyes of parents (and adults in general), as ‘good’, but good in what sense? Whilst humans may value nature in ways connected to the particular needs/values of their time, behaviours are nevertheless both destructive and exploitive and biophilic tendencies, including that of the aesthetic, may still be deployed in exploitive ways (Kellert, 1993). As Urry (2000) notes, much tourism essentially equates to consuming natural beauty in a way that is not necessarily ‘good’. Similarly, in the EY setting, fascination over a worm can easily end in its demise.
Back in the eighteenth-century Rousseau proposed that children should be educated by nature on the basis that ‘society’ was a corrupting force (Taylor, 2013). In Kellert’s language, this could be considered as a negativistic response to the threat of society, for Rousseau, nature, devoid of adult human influence, was pure. Taylor (2013) argues that Rousseau’s “figure of Nature’s child” endures today, as his ideas went on to influence the educational philosophy of Frobel and subsequently, of Montessori and Steiner and thus shape modern settings. Intrinsically, ideas of children as ‘being of nature’ persist today in a construction of the child as innocent and in need of protection from a corrupt adult world (Dahlberg et al., 2013). This resonates especially with fears for children’s safety in relation to ideas of strangers; aspects of technology; the built environment; the power of the media; and indoor sedentary lifestyles (perceived as removing children from nature) (Knight, 2013). These fears become configured in ways that position nature as both threat and freedom, depending on the particular social concern of the moment. In our ECEC marketized world, we could say that nature acquires attributes of yet another product to be not only exploited but also consumed. Forest School advocates are often caught in the uncomfortable place of both regretting the commodification of nature as beneficial for (pre-school) children whilst at the same time claiming its merits for holistic learning and development, and for some, its potential benefits in addressing climate change.
So, can ‘nature as good’ as currently configured in ECEC settings be ‘good for children’ and ‘good for nature’? My reflection challenges a simple, taken-for-granted notion of ‘nature as good’ as an aspect of what we do in ECEC settings subject to the vagaries of market demands. I recognise that there are other paradigms of thought that give a more hopeful construction of ideas of nature, nonetheless, ‘nature as good’ slips through the backdoor into ECEC practices in ways that assume an intrinsic virtue beyond critique. As educators, we should be wary of complacency. I suggest that nature is enjoying a moment of being perceived as inherently and unproblematically, ‘good’. The challenge is how to engage with the opportunity this presents without exploiting nature or enabling children to create just another brand of nature that fails to consider what might be ‘good for nature’. Weldemariam et al. (2017) have noted that it is currently down to individual practitioners to instigate aspects of sustainability within EY settings as the UK curriculum neither gives guidance on how to engage with children on matters of sustainability nor views children as active and capable of doing so. Deeper reflection about EY engagement with nature in ways that might sustain children’s long-term futures and address urgent issues of climate change, is something that behoves us all. In sum, a respectful approach to nature in ECEC that conscientiously addresses the sensitivity of nature in relation to human agency and considers it of equal value and worth protecting, may well be ‘good’ for children in multi-faceted ways.
Kathleen Bailey – CIRCY Doctoral Researcher
My research ‘Wondering with children whilst constructing ‘nature’: a dissonance of global warming and the global economic market’ is supervised by CIRCY members Dr Rebecca Webb and Prof Janet Boddy. My ethnographic fieldwork using arts-based methods with pre-school children will take place over a scholastic year starting September 2020.
Kathleen was awarded £200 and her reflection paper ‘Nature’ as ‘good’ – an ECEC product and practice’ was published by TACTYC (the Association for Professional Early Years Development).
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