Place, curriculum and the arts May 5, 2013Posted by christinefjohnston in Early Childhood Education, Education and the Environment, Social Ecology.
Tags: arts education, ecopedagogy, environmental education
from Dr Kumara Ward
There has been much commentary in this blog (Gray 2012; Malone 2012) and in other publications (Seed, Macy, Fleming & Naess 1988; White 2004; Louv 2006; Ward 2011) about the importance of children developing a connection with the natural environment, and in particular their local natural environment, in order to develop a sense of belonging in place and a disposition toward stewardship for the environment. This is seen as essential if we are to develop new ways of interacting with and managing our planet as a finite resource and as our only home. The urgency for sustainability education is evident in educational curricula for all ages across Australia. It is a cross-curriculum priority in the Draft Australian Curriculum documents (ACARA 2010) and recommended as embedded practice in daily routines and curriculum in Outcome 2 of the Early Years Learning Framework (DEEWR 2009). The quality assurance process in the early childhood sector also highlights embedded sustainability education for young children in Quality Standard 3 (DEEWR 2010). The question considered here is, how do we best do this when working with young children?
This discussion draws on the findings of my PhD research (Ward 2011) and suggests that arts-based pedagogies can play a key role in expressing daily content about the natural world through music, drama, dance and the visual arts. We know that the arts engage multiple intelligences (Gardner 1995), encourage lateral thinking, problem solving, integration of concepts, aesthetic and creative development and comprehension on many levels of being and understanding (Russell-Bowie 2009; Wright 2012). What needs to be added to support children’s learning about nature is a deliberate injection of content (Cutter-Mackenzie & Edwards 2006) and intentional teaching through arts-based pedagogies in which the focus is on the local natural environment (Ward 2011). Content introduced through the arts cannot replace actual experiences in the natural world but does help to interpret and extend children’s experiences of nature and weave the understandings they gain from their in situ experiences in the natural world into their everyday knowing about their place and their community. It is time that the arts were dusted off to become key elements of pedagogy for young children, particularly for education for sustainability.
In the early childhood field, what started out as environmental education in the 1980s, has evolved and become known as early childhood education for sustainability or ECEfS (Davis 2010). ECEfS is a term that encapsulates notions of connection to the natural world through first-hand experience, awareness of sustainability practices, management and design, advocacy and agency. In a practical sense, this often means gardening, worm farms, composting and cooking and perhaps even building design, landscaping and management practices but overall the uptake of ECEfS in Australia is limited (Elliott 2009). There is, in Australia and internationally, an emerging interpretation of ECEfS that emphasises the first hand experiences children have in the natural world and it is often called ‘nature education’. In this interpretation of practice, the extent of time in the natural world can vary greatly and at its most basic may mean a couple hours per term in wild or unstructured environments. At its extreme it involves children spending all or at least a substantial period of time in wild or unstructured places. Whatever the case, it is the first hand experience that is paramount and the environment that is the teacher. The content of the experiences in the environment become the foundations for learning in many domains, in addition to the embodied, affective and physical experience (Warden 2005).
Early childhood settings and primary schools in Australia are by their nature not inclined to adventurous, unstructured or wild outdoor spaces (Walsh 2008; Little 2010). There are some exemplary settings, despite the majority tendency to build outdoor spaces according to minimum global requirements for space and the perceived need for amelioration of risk (Malone 2007; Little 2010). While many educators who are committed to providing opportunities for children to experience nature do their best to transform their environments so there are green and/or unstructured elements, there are invariably constraints related to budgets and resources. Arts based pedagogies can play a substantial role in assisting educators to interpret and deepen children’s understandings of the natural world and their understanding of place in their local community.
Connection with nature is often cited as an aim of nature education and of ECEfS (White & Stoecklin 2008; Davis 2010; Wilson 2010; Ward 2011; Warden 2012), as an end in itself and as a precursor to developing dispositions toward sustainable living and stewardship. Pedagogies of place (Orr 2005; Sobel 2005; Somerville 2012) discuss the role that place has in the forming of identity and the sense of belonging to place. Ecopsychological (Roszak 2001) practice or practice aimed at ecoliteracy (Capra 1999) also promote connection to place in order to understand and feel connected to the natural world in a manner that supports psychological well-being and sustainable living. The common element is the connection with nature.
The nature of this connection can perhaps best be evoked by reflecting on our own embodied experience in natural environments and the multi-textured and layered sensorial encounters that can be part of a simple walk through the forest, a swim in a local stream or a daydream lying in a grass meadow. These sensorial experiences, while physically embodied, are filtered through the child’s metacognitive schema and become additional ways of knowing and understanding the world. They can be further explored, relived and reinterpreted through scaffolded creative arts experiences. For example, educators can assist children to recreate the movement of the water, clouds or grass in the meadow through dance and drama, to draw elements of the experiences and to create simple songs that reflect them.
An appreciation for the beauty of the natural world is also often cited as a worthy attribute to encourage in children (Seed et al. 1988; Capra 1999; Sherwood 2006; Wilson 2010). The emotional connection that arises through fascination, awe and wonder, whether it be at the markings on a beetle or a breathtaking grand landscape scene, are also types of knowing and knowledge according to Wilson (2010 p. 8) who describes wonder as ‘an emotion wedded to understanding based on intuition and natural instinct’. Aesthetic appreciation is also a key feature of experience in the natural world (Capra 1999) with unlimited combinations of form, colour, shape, movement, pattern, sound and texture, all of which lend themselves to specific creative experiences that will resonate with children because they reflect their experience on a deep experiential level.
The various modes of the creative arts are innately reflective of the sounds, sights, smells, textures and colours of the natural world. They can evoke emotional, intellectual, creative and physical understandings and deepen knowledge. It is time we embraced them in our pedagogies.
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