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Back to school month: Inventing a child's ecological education

Science Blogs is celebrating the beginning of the new school year with a series of 101-style posts, introducing the basics of a concept. I've got a couple of basics posts I'd like to do, but this one seemed particularly apt to me. I'm a homeschooler, but it isn't only homeschoolers that struggle with the question of how you frame our ecological situation for children in ways that are honest, not too frightening, engaging, and age-appropriate. Because most schools of every type offer a very superficial education in ecology, most parents of kids going to school will need, just as badly as any homeschooler, a deeper option that better describes their world.

This will be a four part series, unfolding over this month, talking about texts and ideas for working on everything from basic science concepts needed for an ecological education to how to talk about global warming. My focus here is on books and ideas appropriate for elementary age kids, from first to fifth grade, simply because that's what I've worked on most intensively - those are the ages of my kids. For those homeschooling or afterschooling, I've tried to find books and ideas that are also attractive to slightly younger kids - 4-6 year olds who may not be fully ready to follow along, but who can be engaged and grasp some of this on a lower level

What do children need that they don't get when talking about ecology? First of all, I think they need the obvious, basic knowledge of the sciences - they need to understand the scientific method and how we find things out in the material world. They need to have a very basic grounding in how the world works - that is, you can't talk about how soil and water and life intersect until a child knows what soil is and how the water cycle works in a simple way. Where does our energy come from? What, for that matter, is energy and why do we need it? Where does water come from, besides the tap? What moves it along? How does a forest work? Who lives there? Why would it matter if an ocean got more acidic, or if the arctic got warmer? Without these basics, the larger questions can't begin to be answered.

The second thing they need is the ability to begin to grasp systems thinking - most education breaks things down into component parts, so for children before the high school level, there often won't be a lot of experience in thinking about how connections between discrete ideas work. Without the idea that there are connections, and some experience finding them, the connections between ecological connections and their world will always seem abstract.

For example, your six year old may have gotten a bean in a styrofoam cup in April or May when his school class was doing "planting" and "seeds." Realistically speaking, since beans don't like to be transplanted, and you probably forgot about the styrofoam cup for two weeks in the back of the car or she dumped all the soil into her backpack and you tossed the broken seedling, not much came of that except the styrofoam cup and some dirt to dispose of. Even if you did manage to make it survive, the cheap potting soil purchased in bulk by the school had no nutrients in it, and the bean probably died. Most likely, there was no connection from the seed past germination and the first sprout - certainly, the odds are that most kids (the kids of my readership probably somewhat excepted) won't have watched the process of flowering, or the formation of seed in the pod, and certainly won't be saving bean seeds for next year or measuring nitrogen levels in the soil.

I say this not to criticize anyone - I'm just as likely to be scraping the broken bean seedling into the compost as anyone else - but to point out that in order to see the world as an ecological whole, children need something they often don't get - a wide view alongside one that is broken down into easy pieces. Otherwise, there's a tendency not to grasp what the point of what they are learning is. This will be the subject of my second post.

The third critical thing in ecological education for children is that they get a grasp of human ecological and environmental history. This is often neglected precisely because "history" as it is taught to younger children tends to focus on showy events, or the lives of other children. The least showy portion of history is the history of soils and agricultural technologies, of woodlands and human practices. This is very tough to teach to kids who have been taught as we've all been taught, to prioritize big shiny events and big personalities in history. And yet it is essential - essential for a host of reasons, most of all because we live in a world that resolutely teaches children that what's at stake in our environmental situation is "nature" and simultaneously reveals that "nature" is something that exists "over there somewhere where things are wiild." In a world where very little is actually wild, it is very hard to engage children with the preservation of "nature" - an integrated sense of how humans are part of nature, and more importantly, how humans affect their climate, landscape and environment well and badly is central to the project of helping us save *ourselves.*

Finally, children need hands-on experience acting on their environment and getting to know their ecology directly - that means time in the water of the creek and time on the lawn and in the vacant lots where the weeds grow tall. It means time spent growing food and preserving it, watching the weather roll in and learning what's in their water and where it comes from.

In every part of this, it is really important to keep this age appropriate and not too frightening. I grew up with at least one parent who felt that it was important to always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to his children. I also remember the nightmares I had, and my sisters had, because we learned too much too soon due to this policy - frankly, I think it was inappropriate. I don't believe in lying to children, but I also don't think kids need to know everything at once. I think many teachers don't tell children enough. But overcompensating by telling them too much is equally unfair - a child without the power to actively alter their world does not need to know how unlikely it is that it can be altered at all. That's a recipe for a sense of powerlessness.

Ok, this week we'll focus on the science basics. I won't offer lesson plan guidelines for teaching these, because you probably already are teaching some of them, and it is just a matter of finding out where the gaps are. Moreover, our family has never really sat down and either designed a curriculum for teaching them or acquired someone else's curriculum, because these things tend to happen by osmosis in our geeky household. My children are the sons of an astrophysicist and an eco-geek who can't help but teach their kids what they think is cool. When Simon was 5, as a birthday present Eric took him to his astronomy class. They were doing outer planets, and Simon at the time was space obsessed, an obsession fed heavily by his father. Finally, to a great deal of laughter from the room full of college students, Eric had to order Simon to stop (correctly) answering the questions so that his undergraduates could answer some. It is just in the air our kids breathe a lot of the time. So I can give you a list of textbooks, but I'll leave it to someone else to focus on how to teach basic concepts in science, and will leave curricular ideas for the next segment.

Basic Science:

I'm a huge fan of Basher-Books for my kids - there's a whole series of them, breaking scientific concepts down into cool little illustrated characters that look kind of like Pokemon. Simon Basher's illustrated concepts are clear and well-done - for the purposes of an ecological education I recommend _Basher Planet Earth_ as well as _Physics_ and _Biology_. These books aren't all you'll need - they are necessarily short summaries with heavy emphasis on the "cool" details, but they are great primers and a lot of fun and don't dumb things down.

We're also very appreciative of the Graphic Library's "Max Axiom" series of graphic illustrations of scientific concepts. Max Axiom is a slightly obvious cliche of the scientist-hero, but the explanations are pretty good. The Scientific Method, Ecosystems,b Adaptation, Evolution, Energy - all have their own comics and are extremely well done and clearly explained. The only quibble I have is that I think kids will likely be less impressed by the "superhero" aspect of this before they are really able to understand the most subtle explanations - in some ways the pitch of this series is a little off - say in "Photosynthesis" which presents a detailed analysis that IMHO, is pitched too high for the kind of audience who are likely to think these comic books are still cool. But since I'd rather things go over my kids heads than under them, this isn't a serious critique.

Bobbie Kalman has several series of books about science that introduce ecological and environmental concepts that kids will need. They focus on habitats, lifecycles, and explaining ecological concepts. These tend to be pitched a bit lower than the above books - although my six year old loves both series, I think both of the above are grades 2-5 more than the younger ones. Bobbie Kalman's books strike me as more appropriate for K-2, but obviously, kids and mileage will vary a lot. My only problem with these books is that they tend to have an underlying core of painful sincerity that gets old pretty quick - the books are well done, beautiful and good, but they take themselves a bit too seriously for me.

The venerable Magic School bus series is almost too obvious, but it has several virtues. First of all, the books will probably be available for pennies at your local yard or library sale - everyone has them if you want to own them. If you don't, your library has a bazillion of them. They are clear, and familiar to most kids. In fact, that familiarity may be their biggest weakness - I think any underlying educational value often disappears in the encounter-with-old-friends that any characters that also appear in a tv show have with kids. But particularly the older ones cover some really good topics "Inside a Hurricane" and "Visit the Waterworks" offer entertaining ways to teach younger elementary-aged kids about basic concepts that otherwise don't have too many fun books on the subject.

Finally, we love the Eyewitness series of books, particularly their _Living World_ _Earth_ and _Ocean_ volumes. These are hefty books with lots of incredible information for children. Adults will learn things too. They are encyclopedic, and thus bad books to read alound straight through - but they are great books for kids to pore over, and also wonderful for paging through or for reference when you encounter a sticky concept.

My kids also really love to look at textbooks designed for adults and college students if they are well illustrated and interesting. You will have to do some fast editing, of course and explaining of concepts, but don't assume that just because a book is pitched to adults you shouldn't use it with your kids.

Ok, more forthcoming!

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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