animals & plants

How can we help kids FALL IN LOVE with an ecosystem?


Let's assume that our new kind of school can achieve what I set out yesterday, in "Make Naturalists, Not Biologists": get kids learning about and loving nature through mucking about in it. How can we do that? How can we cultivate a love of the natural world?

Scott Sampson — whose powerful How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature I've been riffing on lately — argues that local places can help us.

He suggests that there may be something deep in human nature that helps us fall in love with specific places.

Sampsons suggests a "topophilia hypothesis".

He's riffing himself off of E. O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis — that humans have an instinctive urge to affiliate with other forms of life. (For how we've responded to that, see our curriculum of animals and plants in the classroom.)

Sampson's idea, though, is a bit more specific. He starts by tracing the roots of the word:

In 1947, poet W. H. Auden coined a similar word, topophilia — literally, a "love of place" — to refer to the affective bonds that people often form with the places they live....

I decided to borrow this neologism to put forth a new idea, the topophilia hypothesis, which proposes that we humans possess an innate bias to bond with local life and landscape, inherited from our foraging forebearers.

Animals need to bond in order to survive: to food, to water, to members of the opposite sex, to anything that can protect them from predators, and so on. Animals are bonding machines, and each species needs to bond to somewhat different things.

What did humans need to bond to, throughout our evolutionary maturation?

Among other things: the particular ecosystems they were living in. 

Now, humans aren't koala bears: we're not just native to one specific ecosystem. So humans would need a general-purpose ecosystem bonding system: a drive that works something like "whatever the environment around you, pay attention to it. Be curious about it. Be prepared to develop affection for it!"

Sampson again:

I've proposed that topophilia evolved to help humans adapt to a diverse range of settings, each with its own unique suite of life forms and landforms.

Humans who bonded to the place of their childhoods — be they a savanna, desert, rainforest, or whatever — tended to understand it better, and hence tended to survive more.

This is, note, only a hypothesis. It's entirely possible that the lust we see for specific places doesn't come from a specific evolutionary source, but has arisen for other reasons. (We must, as always, be on guard against just-so stories.)

But what seems undeniable is that

a deep passion for local place often develops, particularly among those living in oral, indigenous cultures.... Our body, mind, and senses are "designed" to connect with nature.

Humans are designed to connect with specific natural environments.

A school for humans can make good use of that.

But how?

Here an idea from the Imaginative Education community can come to the rescue: Whole-School Projects.

And about that, more anon!

Make naturalists, not biologists.


A new kind of school — our new kind of school — is attempting to provide a fuller, deeper science curriculum than any school has ever achieved. Today — following my series of riffs off of Scott D. Sampson's powerful book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature — I'd like to suggest that, to do this, we shouldn't try to make biologists — we should try to make naturalists.

What's the difference, you ask?

It's subtle, but exciting.

Sampson talks about how scientists and explorers adopted the moniker "naturalist" in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charles Darwin called himself a naturalist. So did Thomas Jefferson! And in the 1870s and '80s, so did a whole host of Americans.

Nature fever overtook the general public, resulting in hundreds of small natural history associations from coast to coast.

This wave of excitement brought us our great natural history museums (including the Milwaukee Public Museum, which I loved as a boy).

But, by and by, people started spending more time indoors, and the scientific field became professionalized. A new field — "biology" — was defined, focusing

on genes and molecules rather than whole organisms.

The professionals wanted (quite understandably) to differentiate themselves from the masses. And they had reason to, because the sorts of research they conducted was quite different:

Field observations, the bread and butter of natural historians, were replaced by replicable experiments conducted in sterile laboratories.

Ultimately, the word "naturalist" itself faded. Sampson laments:

By the time I began exploring that forest on Vancouver's west side in the mid-1960s, natural history had become a quaint hobby for amateurs.

But, I think, in the death of "naturalist" lie the seeds of its renewal.

"Amateur": an interesting word!

The New Oxford American Dictionary gives one definition of amateur:

"a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity"

It probably goes without saying, but: That's bad. We don't want that.

But there's something cool in the word. Remember that amateur comes from the Latin amare: "to love".

Amateurs are lovers.

A new kind of school — an actual new kind of school, that pushes beyond the tired educational debates of the 20th century — needs to be a school for lovers, even before it needs to be a school for mastery or a school for meaning.

And so, I suggest, we need to reclaim the word "amateur".

The good people at the podcast A Way with Words summarize the difference between "naturalist" and "biologist" quite nicely —

"Naturalist" connotes "muddy boots". "Biologist" connotes "crisp, clean lab coat".

You think "naturalist", and you think tromping in the muck. You think "biologist", and you think holding a tenured chair.

In the last few decades, people have valued chairs over boots.

Well: "naturalist" is coming back. It's being reclaimed by scientists — most notably E. O. Wilson — who see the need to reconnect people to the natural world.

Now, ain't nothing wrong with lab coats. And ain't nothing wrong with tenured chairs!

Ain't nothing wrong, that is, with learning about the natural world through carefully-controlled experiments conducted in sterile labs.

Our society needs (desperately!) more of that sort of science. And we need to do some of it in our schools, too.

But it's not where we need to start.

So, let's be clear on this: A new kind of school needs to do science in the muck. A new kind of school needs to bring back actual experiences — oftentimes messy, occasionally dangerous — into science. A new kind of school needs to reclaim the mantle of amateur science.

Sampson writes:

We're closer than you might think to rebuilding a country of naturalists.

A school for humans needs to be a school for naturalists. And that's one of the things, I'm proud to say, we're doing!

Can schools reverse the "indoor migration"?

Suddenly, kids are spending nearly all of their time indoors — a wrenching historical change. In the last generation, Scott D. Sampson writes in How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, our society has witnessed an "indoor migration":

One study found that the average American boy or girl spends four to seven minutes a day outdoors....

By comparison, those same average American kids devote more than seven hours daily to staring at screens, replacing reality with virtual alternatives. Most boys rack up more than 10,000 gaming hours before age twenty-one....

The net result of these staggering statistics is what author Robert Michael Pyle has dubbed "the extinction of experience," highlighted by the gaping chasm between children and nature.

Ho boy.

I struggle not to be anti-screen in a simplistic, knee-jerk sort of way, but when I mull over the rising rates of depression among young adults, and the simultaneous lowering rates of outdoor play, it makes me nervous.

(I'm open, by the way, to any evidence suggesting that the two are not linked. Correlation ain't causation, and all that.)

Sampson suggests that this flight from nature isn't something that parents want. Quite the opposite, actually:

In the United States, 65 percent of respondents regarded this issue either as "very serious" or "extremely serious." Parents believe that developing a connection with nature is critical to a child's development. Among American parents, 82 percent regard time in nature to be "very important" to their children's development, second in priority only to reading.

What I take from this is the realization that there's a huge desire for ways to give kids real experiences in nature. There are other organizations who do this, of course — the Scouts come to mind! But because schools engage with childen five days a week, they seem to offer an even greater possibilities for reordering childhood to something more healthy.

So, our big question o' the week: how could a new kind of school regularly connect children with nature?

That's one of the riddles we're trying to unravel.

So far, our answers include bringing animals and plants into the classroom and cooking lunch together. We're also considering some manner of adventure playground. Though I haven't yet written about it here, we're also planning to engage in what Kieran Egan has dubbed "whole school projects" with a local natural site: a riverbed, for example, that we can regularly experience and intensively study for a number of years.

But let me raise this explicitly: how else can we do it?

How can a new kind of school lead the charge in re-connecting kids with nature?

Animals & plants


A problem:

Kids in classrooms can sometimes be like hamsters stuck in empty cages. Our minds are built to handle a specific type of complexity, and we feel satisfied when we're in it.

One aspect of the environment that we're built for is that it be filled with living things: plants and animals and fungi. That is, we're built to find animals and plants interesting. 

Biology, of course, grows out of this innate love — this biophilia, as a few authors have christened it.

We're built to crave being around living things, but schools (and much of modern society) largely divorces us from it.

Our basic plan:

We bring in as many animals & plants to our classroom (and to our school property) as possible. We find ways to put kids in contact with these living things, we encourage the kids to observe and pose questions about the living things, and we help answer those questions.

Our goals:

Our grade schoolers learn as much complex biology as many students learn throughout K-12.

Our students lose their "gross!" response (also an innate reaction!) as they encounter insects and worms.

Our students feel calmer.

Our students develop relationships with some of the animals, and from that become enchanted with the natural world.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Walking into our classrooms, you might notice the surprising number of plants that line the walls of the room. There are grow-lights galore, and a surprising number of hydroponic systems (the better for seeing roots, and being clear on how plants grow).

You might spot students taking time-lapse photos of a bed of mushrooms growing (to be eaten in a later lunch!).

Lots of schools have class pets, and we should pursue these, too: fish and hermit crabs and parakeets and gerbils. We might also pursue some of the ickier critters: worms and praying mantises and beetles; snakes and frogs and salamanders. Gross! shuts kids out of experiences that could support a vibrant intellectualism: helping kids desensitize to the slimy and creepy-crawly is part of our job.

I'd love for the school to have a chicken coop outside, with kids in charge of taking care of the birds.

For all of these animals and plants, we'd have kids make observations: drawing, especially, but also measuring growth and writing down behavior. (This can be done in blocks of independent work time.) We can then encourage kids to pose questions about what they'd like to understand: why does the gerbil get scared when I approach its cage? why do the mushrooms grow better away from the sunlight?

Having posed these questions (and perhaps shared them to our Questions Board), kids can start looking for answers, through Wikipedia, Zoobooks, The Encyclopedia of Life, and so on. Those questions which kids aren't able to answer on their own, but would like to have answered, are prime material for the teacher to have an Imaginative-Education-inspired circle time about.

Some specific questions:

  • What's the least number of animals/plants/fungi we'd like to start with?
  • What's the greatest vision for animals/plants/fungi we'd like to aim for?
  • Beyond the animals/plants/fungi that I've listed here, what other ones could we put in?
  • Lots of kids and teachers (myself included) have allergies to mammals. Does this automatically rule out having any in our classrooms, or are there clever ways around this?
  • What kinds of safety issues do we need to talk about, if we bring animals into the school?