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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Look Don’t Touch

Air Date: Week of
Walking in the woods. (Photo: Flickr CC/your neighborhood librarian)

Research shows that adults who are strong environmental stewards were allowed to explore nature unfettered as kids. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with author David Sobel about environmental education today. Sobel says educators are too focused on rules and making sure that students learn correct scientific terms instead letting kids be kids.


GELLERMAN: Environmental education is failing our kids - that according to David Sobel. He teaches teachers how to teach environmental studies at Antioch University. His article “Look Don’t Touch” is in the latest edition of Orion Magazine. Professor- Welcome to Living on Earth!
SOBEL: Nice to be here.

GELLERMAN: So the thesis in your article, “Look, Don’t Touch”, is basically that environmental education is one of the causes of children’s alienation from nature. How is that?

SOBEL: It seems odd, I think, that this is happening. And it’s important to understand that it’s not all environmental education - it’s just some environmental education that tends to separate kids from the natural world, rather than engage them with it.

GELLERMAN: Well how is it? How does that happen?

SOBEL: It happens through a lot of quiet and kind of underground messaging so that when you take kids to a nature center it becomes really important to stay on the trail and you can’t pick things up because the oils from your hands might harm the amphibians. There’s a lot of that kind of, “look at stuff, but don’t touch it.” And that becomes kind of counter-productive. There’s too much narration and telling in environmental education and not enough collecting and exploring.

GELLERMAN: Is part of that from helicopter parents hovering over their kids - over-protective, afraid? You know, it’s a jungle out there: there are ticks and mosquitoes.

SOBEL: Yeah, it’s partially that’s a function of helicopter parents. But it’s also a function of the fact that nature center staffs have taken on that same level of anxiety. And so, they know that parents are concerned about this stuff so they are going to make sure that they don’t do anything that’s going to make parents be concerned about their kids getting ticks or getting poison ivy or that kind of stuff.

Kids looking for life in the marshy water. (Flickr CC/Aine D)

GELLERMAN: So no playing in trees, no building tree houses, no digging in the dirt - basically kind of sterilizing nature.

SOBEL: Sterilizing nature, right, exactly. And it’s problematic because that’s exactly contrary to what kids need in order to engage with the natural world.

GELLERMAN: You write that, “Environmental educators need to allow children to be ‘un-tutored savages.’”

SOBEL: Yeah, those words are from E.O. Wilson, who’s a noted entomologist at Harvard. And it comes from his autobiography, in which he said that he was, essentially, an ‘un-tutored savage’ in his own childhood. And then he says that kids need the time to be ‘un-tutored savages’ when they just kind of engage and, you know, search for stuff and collect stuff in natural world, rather than just looking.

GELLERMAN: And when I read that I was thinking Lord of the Flies, you know, kind of allowing kids just to go out there and do their thing.

SOBEL: [LAUGHS] Yeah. The ‘un-tutored savages' can evoke the Lord of the Flies image. And the research about what makes for good environmentalists is that yes, you can get the ‘un-tutored savages', Lord of the Flies, experience. But you also need to have, therefore, adults that model that it’s okay to collect and pick up and return things to their natural habitat.

GELLERMAN: But I’m wondering if even that is over-teaching. That is, you know, when I was a kid, I was building a tree house, I was doing stuff alone, nobody was teaching me anything. I was learning by myself.

SOBEL: Yeah, those are all things kids should do. You probably had some adult saying what made good sense and what didn’t make good sense somewhere in the background. But it’s true that kids should have alone time in the woods. If it gets crazy, then there should be some adult intervention.

GELLERMAN: So, should I be taking my kids to IMAX movies, should I be leaving National Geographics around so they pick them up?

SOBEL: Everything in moderation. So, those things aren’t bad - but they’re bad if that’s the sum total of kids contact with the natural world. So there needs to be a large quotient of being outdoors, in the meadows and in the woods, as well as the more didactic, pictorial experience of IMAX and National Geographic.

Look what we found in the water. (Photo: Flickr CC/Union Gospel Mission)

GELLERMAN: So basically, take the kid kayaking.

SOBEL: Take the kid kayaking. Take the kid berry-picking.

GELLERMAN: Well, because a lot of parents - you say ‘berry-picking’ and they’ll say ‘oh my gosh, they’ll pick something poisonous!' I know I take my kid mushrooming and I tell other parents and they look at me like ‘Oh my God, should we call the police on this guy?’

SOBEL: Exactly. It’s fascinating how shocked and disapproving other parents are about, you know, that kind of behavior. And in fact, there is interesting research that’s emerged that, you know, where you look at the relationship between childhood experiences and adult environmental values. And one of the things in childhood that seems to shape environmental behaviors in adulthood is parents taking their kids mushroom picking and berry picking: selecting a natural resource for consumption seems to be something that leads to environmental behavior in adulthood.

GELLERMAN: You know, Professor, if I were asked I could trace my environmentalism to when I was just, maybe four years old. And my mother gave me a spoon, put me in the garden, and I started digging to China. Do you have a memory like that?

SOBEL: The analogous memory that I recount is a snow day when I was about eight years old. And my friend and I decided we would play this game where they were gonna go off and I was gonna to follow them fifteen minutes later. And in the midst of tromping through waist-deep snow all by myself, my glasses were fogging up, I had one of those little epiphany moments: that I was out here, all by myself, in the snowy wilderness, and wasn’t this great! It’s a recurrent phenomenon that kids have these great moments, somewhere in early to middle childhood, that often connect them to the natural world. You know, it creates some deep, lifelong connection.

GELLERMAN: It’s magic.

SOBEL: Yeah, exactly. And that’s the magic that we’re missing out on when we do kind of rule bound environmental education.

GELLERMAN: Well, Professor Sobel, thanks a lot.

SOBEL: You bet! It’s been fun.

GELLERMAN: David Sobel’s article, “Look, Don't Touch!" appears in the latest edition of Orion Magazine - there's a link at our website, LOE dot ORG.



Read David Sobel’s article, “Look, Don’t Touch” in this month’s edition of Orion Magazine.

Read David Sobel’s article, “Beyond Ecophobia” in Yes Magazine.


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