jump to navigation

Place-based learning in teaching and teacher education November 1, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Social Ecology, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

By Katherine Bates

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.  (Benjamin Franklin)

Place-based education is part of the broader ecopedagogical movement in education that connects learners with and immerses them in their natural locale (Kahn, 2010; McInterney & Smith, 2011). These connections are understood to be best developed authentically, over time and with gentle positive immersions in the natural world (Sobel, 2014). This ‘in-place’ approach is also argued to be a built on process, connecting students with their local community through repeated immersions in order to develop a sense of agency with and planetary citizenship for the lived-in world (Hung, 2014; Sobel, 2014). Place-based education therefore plays an important role for engaging students with notions of ‘place’, identity’ and ‘community’ and, for developing local-global connectivity and citizenship in these times of significant environmental challenge (McInerney, Smyth & Down, 2011; Misiaszek, 2016).

Place-Based learning is also a particularly useful and energising approach in light of today’s Australian Curriculum reform and eco-pedagogy paradigm shift (ACARA, 2012). With the inclusion of an eco-pedagogical approach in curriculum and syllabus documents, immersing children in the natural world, it moves from an optional fringe pedagogy to mainstream when implementing the Humanities and Social Studies Learning Areas in the Australian Curriculum and the NSW BOSTES History and Geography Syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2012; NSW BOSTES, 2012). However, if we are to implement this approach in a school context for deep learning about the world around us, educators need to leave indoor classrooms so that students can be immersed in the natural world ‘up close’ (Kahn, 2010; Knight 2016; Liefländer et al, 2015).

One of the core aspects in the Human Society and Its Environment subject in the Master of Teaching at Western Sydney University provides future teachers with a sense place by involving them in place-based activities within their local university environment. These strategies provide future teachers with a starting point for understanding hands-on, nature-based enquiry and provide model lessons for implementing positive immersion nature based explorations in their future primary Geography and History teaching contexts.

Many of these place-based tasks are supported by using technology in the learning experience and in the creation of learning objects back in the classroom thus making technology an invisible tool in the learning rather than a tokenistic add on (Hunter, 2015). One of the popular choices amongst the selection of activities is the nature audit. Vertical or horizontal metres are measured out and using a mobile device, photos of the components within the metre space are taken. Students then audit the collected data, categorising the manmade and natural objects, the interaction between the objects and the dominance of, or integration between these components (Fig. 1). The photos are then generated into a ‘Zoom’ slide show with a sustainability theme.

comp-1Figure 1: Nature Audit




Kinaesthetic experiences are also popular with our preservice teachers such as matching paint colour swatches with colours from the natural and man-made local environment (Fig. 2). Students then ‘colour-map’ their environment, collecting data on colour dominances and tonal preferences. These data mapping activities are connected with earlier work in using Google maps, geo-mapping and geocaching for learning about local and global communities with school aged students. Conversations and ‘fat questions’ are raised about the dominant colours in our children’s school and in their wider communities. Other kinaesthetic activities involve recording natural and man-made sounds in their environment, which instigates interesting discussions about the impact of sound and the ‘white noise’ in children’s seemingly ‘always on’ world.


Figure 2: Colour in my world task


The strategies described here are but a sample of the place-based inquiries that our preservice teachers take part in but are ones that demonstrate the opportunities for rich discussion that these activities generate in terms of implementing place-based education with primary aged students. Moreover, the significant positive in task engagement that transpires when groups of preservice teachers work collaboratively in and about the natural world reinforces the different ways of knowing and learning that the outdoors offer all ages. As facilitators of these activities our team always looks forward to working with our groups as we share a common passion for supporting our future teachers in developing students’ connections with nature and develop pro-environmental agents of change (Liefländer et al, 2015).

 So children can thrive and grow strong in challenging times ahead, let us engage them in nature, ethical conversations, and the building of caring and peaceful communities, in their schools and beyond.  Winograd, K. (2016, p 266)



Australian Institute for Teaching and Leadership (2016). Australian Professional Standards of         Teachers, Author, Sydney.

Hung, R. (2014). In Search of ecopedagogy: Emplacing Nature in the lLght of Proust and Thoreau. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 46(13), 1387-1401.

Hunter, J. (2015). Technology Integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPack,

Routledge, New York and London.

Kahn, R. (2010). Critical Pedagogy, Ecoliteracy and Planetary Crisis: The Ecopedagogy

Movement. New York: Peter Lang.

Liefländer, A., Fröhlich, G., Bogner, F., & Schultz, P. (2015). Promoting Connectedness with

Nature through Environmental Education, Environmental Education Research, 19(3), 370-384.

McInerney, P., Smyth, J., and Down, B. (2011). Coming to a Place Near You? The Politics and

Possibilities of a Critical Pedagogy of Place-Based Education, Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 39(1), pp 3-16.

Misiaszek, G. W. (2016). Ecopedagogy and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization:

Essential Connections between Environmental and Global Citizenship Education to Save the Planet. International Review of Education, 62(5), pp 587-607.

Sobel, D. (2014). Place based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Green

Living:  A Practical Journal for Mindful Living, 19(1), 27-30.

Winograd, K. (2016). Education in Times of Environmental Crisis: Teaching Students to be Agents of Change, Routledge, New York and London.

Dr Katherine Bates is a sessional academic in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.  She currently lectures in Human Society and Its Environment at Western Sydney University and also in Literacy and Numeracy in Secondary Schooling at the University of Wollongong. She has had extensive experience as a classroom teacher across ES1-S4, EAL/D and literacy support, as well as senior leadership roles in curriculum and assessment with the Department of Education and Sydney Catholic Education.

Reflections upon attending an indigenous world gathering for peace October 10, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Education and the Environment, Social Ecology, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

By Roseanna Henare-Solomona







On International Day of Peace 2016,

INVITATION to all indigenous tribal nations, to participate in a world gathering of:
❣ Chieftain’s / Grandmothers convening in global council;
❣ All respective Indigenous Nations of Mother Earth tending sacred fires, on their sacred land with community.

In this sacred way for Mother Earth and all her children, in solidarity:

Kia Ora, Talofa, Malo e lelei, Nisa Bula Vinaka, Namaste, Taloha Ni, Aloha, Fakalofa lahi Atu


Last month I participated in a delegation to attend this Peace gathering in Seoul Korea, and since returning to Sydney have decided to put pen to paper in an attempt to understand some of the outstanding issues raised by my colleagues in that forum. I also want to take a brief moment to present my own observations about some of the underlying problems to emerge when Non-Indigenous helpers attempt to organise Indigenous people.

Let me begin with two key issues discussed in depth during our assembly. The first was the degradation of papatuanuku, or earth mother, and the seas that surround her. On the very first day of discussions a representative from the Kiribati nation highlighted their plight with rising sea levels and the consequences of a sinking island or the loss of their home. He noted that this issue had been on the United Nations agenda for some time and wondered why very little had been done to date. The urgency, he explained, was such that my people are close to becoming like a homeless coconut floating in the Pacific Ocean.

I thought about my own home and what it might feel like to lose the place where we gather as a family to eat, laugh and love. My heart sank as I thought about the rising tides and the effects on the children and grandbabies of these Kiribati people. Actually, I could not even begin to fathom the loss to the families and the generations to come.

As the days progressed many more stories of horror and environmental destruction were shared. The Rena oil spill off the coast of Tauranga in New Zealand was another stand-out for me. The lack of accountability fuelled outrage, sadness and sometimes despair in me as the local people told of the lasting effects this oil has had on their food, water, health, and surrounding seas and land. And to think that the company pays a fine and then gets back into their boat and leaves the local people with an ongoing problem to fix.

This is outrageous! How can this occur? Corporate shipping companies who use our backyard as a highway to take their cargo from port to port with no real regard or accountability to the people whose lives depend on that sea and the land around it to live. It is ironic these companies are granted government approval to traverse our waters risking the food source and livelihood of many. Governments, in my view, are just as destructive and guilty as the shipping companies.

All that aside, my reflections about this dialogue and in particular, how it aligns with peace, left me somewhat perplexed as I struggled to find a composed resolve to an issue that forces such destruction on others. Moreover my intellectual brain started to think about the ongoing conversations we have in the academy; like the over production and never-ending need of humans to keep taking natural resources from earth mother, the sea and even our own species. I also thought about the people who are privy to knowledge about this global situation, and I realised just how vast the gap is between who know what is happening and those who do not.

This has left me in a state of continuous reflection and thought about how I may contribute, to at least let the people from the Pacific know what is happening beyond their beautiful paradise. The decision to write and tell this story is for now my resolve, and perhaps nowhere near as grand as a United Nations report, but at least it is a genuine attempt to make a change for the better.

The second and final issue I want to raise is the divide between non indigenous and indigenous peoples’ realities. This Korea trip taught me that we are still a very long way from understanding each other, because in some parts of the world there are non indigenous people whose intentions and purposes still operate within a bubble lined with romanticized ideologies. The thought that one can invite elders and leaders to travel halfway around the world where the biggest and strongest typhoon is causing havoc just a stone’s throw away from the gathering place is absurd to say the least.

And what about the missiles fired outward by North Korea only a few months earlier in the direction of Seoul? If that is not enough to get a person wondering, then how on earth does one respond to the hullabaloo antics of an organiser linked to the United Nations and academia who promises to transport our elders to the gathering place. Many travelled long distances and at their own cost to the allocated pick up point, only to be told at the 11th hour there is no plane. In my ‘cranky me’ voice I asked for a please explain. I soon saw how easy it was to disconnect an email, skype, telephone or communication link to suit one’s needs. It is these sorts of shenanigans that intensifies the divide between “us and them” and keeps the collective from bridging the gap in a time when there is an urgency to work together.

As I sat thinking about my world peace experience and the different emotions and lessons I found along the way, I can’t help but feel very blessed to have been taught by some beautiful grandmothers whose wisdom brought me full circle. They watched with great interest and curiosity as people including me shared stories of fear, frustration and despair. They listened with an open heart, and one by one each nanny spoke to an issue with clarity and wisdom. They also offered a solution to the problems we face. This response I shall ponder a little longer.


Dr. Roseanna Henare-Solomona is a sessional academic in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.

Learning towards an ecological worldview April 11, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Secondary Education, Social Ecology, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

by David Wright

For a little over 20 years I have worked as an educator in a university based Social Ecology department. Here considerable attention is paid to the construction of ecological understanding and, in association, the ‘learning ecology’ of both students and (Hill, Wilson & Watson 2004; Wright & Hill, 2011). This is central to our process. We argue that it is one thing to observe ‘an ecology’, it is another to understand one’s self as part of it. Capra (1966), who has made a significant contribution to applying this thinking to education, draws on Maturana and Varela (1992), to describe this as ‘bringing forth our world’. With this in mind, our students are invited to pursue understanding through real world practice, self-reflection and creative, academic writing.

As an illustration of the context for this study, I quote ‘Anne’, a primary school teacher and a recent graduate of our Social Ecology program.

Before [I did the Master of Education: Social Ecology course] I didn’t have [an integrated] understanding… Ecology was a separate thing… I see everything in [connected] terms now. I see it in our relationship with the world, how our relationship with each other impacts upon the world around us… I look at the ecology of the classroom, because you see a shift when someone is away… The class… I see it as a body, an organism made of many bodies…. And I see the staff like that also… So yes… my understanding has changed totally (Personal communication, July 24, 2012).

Anne’s response demonstrates personal and social insight as well as insight into her work as an educator. She notes benefits to her work and benefits to her life outside of her work and she identifies this in relation to ‘the world’. I am excited by her analysis and keen to understand how insights of this kind can permeate education more fully. This is more than a response to an environmental problem. It is a response to ‘our’ circumstance: a social-ecological point in time, in which we are all participants (Wright, Camden-Pratt & Hill, 2011).

I argue therefore that ecological epistemologies can offer a considerable amount to the practice of education. The influence of Bateson’s thinking (1972, 1979; Harries-Jones, 1995) can be seen in constructivist approaches to learning, most particularly in radical constructivism (von Glasersfeld, 1996), where it is argued that the construction of understanding (or learning) is an individual experience built around reflection upon systems of relationship. Maturana and Varela (1992) extend this through theories of systemic self-organisation and autopoiesis. Autopoiesis (or self-making) draws on the biology of cognition to argue a process based understanding of experience, from the perspective of the participant. Varela (1999) extends this through further work on ‘enaction’, which identifies embodied experience as a generator of emergent knowledge. Such knowledge, Varela argues, creates consequences, for which responsibility must be taken. Capra (1996) captures such thinking in his discussion of the way in which we bring forth our world. Sterling (2003) argues this as the basis of a paradigm shift in education and an emerging ecological worldview.

In his work with the Centre for Eco-literacy (Stone & Barlow, 2005), Capra calls for education systems that learn from and reflect the workings of self-organising systems. He notes, “at all scales of nature, we find living systems nesting within other living systems – networks within networks” (1996, p.24). These living systems include schools. An ecological worldview draws attention to inter-relationships within a system. It does so from the perspective of those within that system, rather than that of detached ‘objective’ experts. Bowers (1999, 2011) describes this as ‘ecological intelligence’: the intelligence of the systems – including human systems of thought and action  – that sustain the organization of life. He argues that the transition from individual to ecological intelligence should be a major focus in education.

The challenge will be for education professors, as well, as their colleagues in other departments, to recognize how the patterns of thinking they now equate with progress and enlightenment contribute to the ecological crisis, and to make the radical shift in consciousness that is required (Bowers 1999, p. 170).

In predicating ‘the local’ as central within such learning Bowers emphasizes local communities, local histories and local environmental practices. He argues the importance of examining the local in terms of its sustainability. This can be known better Bowers suggests, through greater awareness of place based culture, tradition and ‘elder knowledge’. This calls up the values and experience of traditional and indigenous communities and challenges the assumptions and practices of colonial cultures. Immersive experience in nature-based learning is a vehicle for such learning (Sobel, 1996). Sobel argues, “we teach too abstractly, too early” (p.5). Grunewald (2003) also seeks to build a critical consciousness of the ways in which place permeates schooling. He challenges educators to recognise and utilise place-based pedagogies. In doing so he cites Wendell Berry.

Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Those who have “thought globally” [and among them have been imperial governments and multinational corporations] have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought… Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place (Berry cited in Grunewald, 2003, pp. 633-634).

These issues of systems thinking, criticality, the perspective of the participant, reflection, responsibility, ‘the local’, nature-based and place-based learning, indigenous perspectives and imaginative and emotional engagement in the construction of relationship are core elements in an ecological understanding of education. Much literature suggests that these can be linked and interwoven very effectively (Stone & Barlow, 2005; Smith & Williams, 1999; Saylan & Blumstein, 2011; O’Sullivan & Taylor, 2004; Judson, 2010). This thinking is applied and reflected upon in a research project that looks at ecological understanding in a selection of Australian and North American schools (Wright 2013). It is also discussed in relation to the use of drama as a teaching methodology in two recent book chapters (Wright 2015a, 2015b).



Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Bateson, G. (1979) Mind and nature. New York: Bantam Books.

Bowers, C.A. Changing the dominant cultural perspective in education, In Smith, G.A. & Williams, D.R. (eds) (1999) Ecological education in action. Albany NY: SUNY Press.

Bowers, C.A. (2011) Perspectives on the ideas of Gregory Bateson, ecological intelligence and educational reforms. Eugene, OR: Eco-Justice Press.

Capra, F. (1996) The web of life. London: Harper Collins.

Grunewald, D.A. (2003) Foundations of place: A multidisciplinary framework for place-conscious education. In American Educational Research Journal, Vol 40:3.

Harries Jones, P. (1995) Ecological understanding and Gregory Bateson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hill, S.B. Wilson, S. and Watson, K. Learning ecology. A new approach to learning and transforming ecological consciousness. In O’Sullivan, E. & Taylor, M. (2004) Learning towards an ecological consciousness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Judson, G. (2010) A new approach to ecological education. New York. NY: Peter Lang,

Maturana, H. and Varela, F. (1992) The tree of knowledge Boston MA: Shambhala.

Saylan, C. & Blumstein, D.T. (2011) The failure of environmental education. Berkely CA: University of California Press.

Sobel, D (1996) Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education. Barrington MA: The Orion Society.

Smith, G.A. & Williams, D.R. (eds) (1999) Ecological education in action. Albany NY: SUNY Press.

Sterling, S. (2003) Whole system thinking as a basis for paradigm change in education: Explorations in the context of sustainability. University of Bath: Unpublished PhD.

Stone, M.K. & Barlow, Z. (eds) (2005) Ecological literacy. San Francisco CA: Sierra Club Books.

O’Sullivan, E. & Taylor, M. (2004) Learning towards an ecological consciousness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Varela, F.J. (1999) Ethical know-how. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.

von Glasersfeld, E (1996) Radical constructivism: A way of knowing and learning. London UK: Falmer Press

Wright, D. & Hill, S. Introduction. In Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet. Stroud, UK: Hawthorn Press.

Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet. Stroud, UK: Hawthorn Press.

Wright, D. (2013) Schooling ecologically: An inquiry into teachers’ ecological understanding in ‘alternative’ schools. Australian Journal of Environmental Education Vol. 29: 2.

Wright, D. (2015a) Drama & ecological understanding: Stories of learning. In Anderson, M. & Roche, C. (eds)  The state of the art: teaching drama in the 21st century. Sydney, NSW: Sydney University Press. ISBN 9781743320273.

Wright, D. (2015b) Drama and ecological understanding: reflections upon ecology, performance, place and indigenous knowledge systems. In Linds, W. & Vettraino, E. (eds.) Playing in a house of mirrors: Applied theatre as reflective practice. Sense Publishers.


Dr David Wright is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. He is also the Academic Course Advisor for the Master of Education (Social Ecology) program at the university.







A Geography of Hope. August 11, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Social Ecology.
Tags: , , ,

Dr Carol Birrell

 A few weeks ago when I was picking up my grandson from his pre-school, he was keen to show me their latest display on a large noticeboard in the centre of the indoor classroom. On it were posted pictures of extinct or near-extinct species of animals with accompanying statements listing surviving numbers and original numbers. It was enough to depress me in an instant! However, what dominated my thoughts was the impact on these young children of such devastating information. I had to ask myself, how do they manage such information, if it is barely possible for me as a mature adult to manage it?

Educator David Sobel has a solid critique of education that may do more harm than good:

 Lurking underneath ‘environmentally correct’ curricula is the assumption that if children see the horrible things that are happening, then they too will be motivated to make a difference. But those images can have an insidious, nightmarish effect on young children whose sense of time, place and self are still forming… what’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it and feel comfortable in it, before being asked to heal its wounds[1].

 In this contemporary world of impending planetary disaster, of economic and political collapse, of rampant fears around health, disease, invasion and war, to list just a few, we are immersed, in fact, in a culture of ‘doom and gloom’. No person is immune to it.

  I came across an expression in relation to this, but in fact its antithesis, that resonated deeply and that I wish to explore further, called ‘A Geography of Hope’. Wallace Stegner, an American author, coined the expression to address the value of ‘hope’ as an idea as well as a place.[2]

 I initially trained as a Geographer and taught this subject in high schools and primary schools for over 20 years. However, I am not sure of the shape of A Geography of Hope, of its look or feel, but I know it is something I need, both as a teacher and more generally, in my life. In the face of this powerful statement, I wish to explore it as an antidote to the pervasive negativity that infects all of us, our students included. And I want to ask the question,

 ‘How do we cultivate A Geography of Hope in our classrooms?’

 I believe this is crucial in our education systems in this moment of time. It demands a shift from negativity, of despair and disempowerment, to a vision of hope that can be owned and embodied in our classes. It is not a positioning that is trying to avoid the truth, to disguise reality under some sort of ‘Pollyanna’ ruse. It may be seen as essential to our mental/physical/emotional/spiritual health and hence to our learning and pedagogical practices.

 David Orr gives us some pointers here:

  ‘The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.’[3]

Take one example of what I would incorporate under the notion of A Geography of Hope: that of the fostering and understanding of beauty in our lives. How could we bring ‘beauty’ more into our classrooms? Of course, we could have more living plants, creatures, art works, images of beautiful natural scenes, poetry, music, planted in the everyday lives of our students (Alas! Far removed from university classrooms!!). It may also reside in our own beings, as a geographic location with its points of longitude and latitude clearly demarcated. If I can hold a map of beauty in my being, in the world, in others, in plants and animals, in the not-so beautiful, and hold that as a central fulcrum in my classes, then it has a tangible presence and can exert influence. It is the ‘still point of the turning world’ in T.S. Eliot’s poem from which waves continue to move outwards[4]. Beauty gives us hope.  

Some recent research in Finland inspired me. People were encouraged to write letters to friends about beauty in their everyday lives- this took place in a small Arctic village over one year. The researcher states:

 ‘Beauty, in these letters, became as if a verb: a continuous, open-ended process of articulating the ways in which one is interwoven with and conditioned by one’s surrounding environment. Articulating beauty in everyday life was proven a practice that sustains sensory attentiveness, openness and imaginative interest towards the material world [5].

Imagine if that kindy noticeboard took beauty as its environmental theme!

 My grandson Sam stops me to take in a particularly stunning sunset, a softly rounded smooth rock, a mosquito on his arm, a strange word that tickles his fancy. He continues to cultivate in me, this notion of beauty and through it, unmistakably, a notion of hope.

 When I begin to contemplate the contours of A Geography of Hope, I am thinking about love, joy, awe, friendship and beauty. I want a classroom brimming with these! Is it possible? I can only hope!   


[1] Sobel, D. (1996) Beyond Ecophobia, The Orion Society, Great Barrington, MA

2 Stegner, W. http://www.angelfire.com/journal/worldtour99/hope.html accessed 5/8/13

3Orr, D (2004). Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, USA.

4 Elliott, T.S. Four Quartets http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html accessed 8/8/13

5 Rautio, P. (2013)  Children who carry stones in their pockets. Children’s Geographies, DOI:10.1080/14733285.2013.812278

Dr Carol Birrell in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney

Place, curriculum and the arts May 5, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Early Childhood Education, Education and the Environment, Social Ecology.
Tags: , ,

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.


ACARA (2010). Draft K*- 12 Australian Curriculum in Engish, History, Mathematics and Science, 2010, Australian Curriculum Assssment and Reporting Authority, On line, http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Home.

Capra, F. (1999). Ecoliteracy: The Challenge for Education in the Next Century, Centre for Ecoliteracy, Liverpool CA, Schumacher Lecture Series.

Cutter-Mackenzie, A. & Edwards, S. (2006). “Everyday Environmental Education Experiences: The Role of Content in Early Childhood Education”, Australian Journal of Environmental Education, Vol. 22, No. 2,  pp. 13-19.

Davis, J., M (2010). ‘What is Early Childhood Education for Sustainability’. In J. M. Davis, (Ed.), Young Children and Environment: Early Education for Sustainability, , Sydney, Cambridge University Press, pp. 21-42.

DEEWR (2009). The Early Years Learning Framework: Belonging, Being & Becoming, Council of Australian Governments, Canbera.

DEEWR (2010). National Quality Standard for Early Childhood Education and Care and School Age Care., 2010, Australian Government, ACT.

Elliott, S., & Davis, J. (2009). “Exploring the Resistance: An Australian Perspective on Educating for Sustainability in Early Childhood.”, International Journal of Early Childhood, Vol. 41, No. 2,  pp. 65-77.  Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/194778948?accountid=36155

Gardner, H. (1995). The Unschooled Mind: How Children Learn and How Schools Should Teach, Basic Books, New York.

Gray, T. (2012). Vitamin N: The Missing Ingredienty in the 21st Century: Learning in the 21st Century, S. Wilson, 15/07/2012. University of Western Sydney, Milperra, Accessed 17/01/2013, http://https://learning21c.wordpress.com/?s=Vitamin+N&searchbutton=go!

Little, H. (2010). Finding the Balance: Early Childhood Practitioners’ Views on Risk, Challenge and Safety in Outdoor Play Settings: Australian Association for Research in Education Conference (28 November – 2 December 2010), Australia : Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE), Melbourne, accessed 12/12/12 http://hdl.handle.net/1959.14/153913.

Louv, R. (2006). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill.

Malone, K. (2007). “The Bubble-Wrap Generation: Children Growing Up in Walled Gardens”, Environmental Education Research, Vol. 13, No. 4, September 2007,  pp. 513-527.

Malone, K. (2012). Place-based Pedagogies in Early Childhood and Primary School Settings: Can They Make a Contribution to Community Sustainability?: Learning in the 21st Century, S. Wilson, 02/12/12, University of Western Sydney, Milperra, Accessed 17 January 2012, http://https://learning21c.wordpress.com/?s=Vitamin+N&searchbutton=go!

Orr, D. W. (2005). ‘Place and Pedagogy’. In M. Stone and Z. Barlow, (Eds.), Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World, San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, pp. 85-95.

Roszak, T. (2001). The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopyschology, 2nd Ed, Phanes Press Inc, Grand Rapids MI.

Russell-Bowie, D. (2009). MMADD About the Arts: An introduction to Creative Arts Education, 2nd, Pearson Prentice Hall, Sydney.

Seed, J., Macy, J., Fleming, P. & Naess, A. (1988). Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings, New Society Publishers. Philadelphia, USA.

Sherwood, P. (2006). Soul Education: Inspiring a New Passion for Sustainable Learning: Sharing Wisdom for Our Future: Environmental Education in Action, 3-6 October 2006, Australian Association for Environmental Education, Sydney, Bunbury, Western Australia.

Sobel, D. (2005). Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities, Nature Literacy Series, The Orion Society, Great Barring MA.

Somerville, M. (2012). ‘The Critical Power of Place’. In G. S. Cannella and S. Steinberg, (Eds.), Critical Qualitative Research Reader, New York, Peter Lang, pp. 67-81.

Walsh, P. (2008). “Stemming the Decline in Playground Activity”, Educating Young Children – Learning and Teaching in the Early Childhood Years, Vol. 14, No. 1,  pp. 31-37.

Ward, K. (2011). The Living Curriculum: A Natural Wonder: Enhancing the Ways in Which Early Childhood Educators Scaffold Young Children’s Learning About the Environment by Using Self-Generated Creative Arts Experiences as a Core Component of the Early Childhood Program, College of Arts: Social Justice Social Change Research Group, Sydney, University of Western Sydney, Doctor of Philosophy.

Warden, C. (2005). The Potential of a Puddle, Mindstretchers, Auchterarder, Perthshire.

Warden, C. (2012). Nurture Through Nature: Working with Children Under 3 in Outdoor Environments 2nd, Mindstretchers, Auctherader, Scotland.

White, R., (2004). Young Children’s Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development and the Earth’s Future, [online] at http://www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/childrennature.shtml. Updated 23/1/2010: accessed 11/3/2010

White, R. & Stoecklin, V., L., (2008). Nurturing Children’s Biophillia: Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education for Young Children, [online] at http://www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/nurturing.shtml. Updated 9/11/2008: accessed 27/5/2010

Wilson, R. (2010). “Aesthetics and a Sense of Wonder”, ChildCare Exchange, Vol. May/June, No. pp. 27-27.

Wilson, R. (2010). Wonder: The Wisdom of Nature: Out My Back Door, Nature Action Collaborative for Children and Community Playthings, Washington, USA, August: pp. 8-9.

Wright, S. (2012). Children, Meaning-Making and the Arts, Pearson, Frenchs Forest.


Dr Kumara Ward is a lecturer in Early Childhood Education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney

%d bloggers like this: