Environmental Education: Cultivating Curiosity in the Real World

By Colleen Kelley Gazette Contributing Writer

Few people would argue these days that we don’t need environmental education. But ask a dozen teachers of the subject what it means and you could get as many different definitions. I’ve been an educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for more than 25 years: presenting programs in schools, training teachers, leading field trips, holding classes for pre-schoolers and home-schooled children, and running an after-school program for kids to play freely outdoors. My experience tells me that an essential part of environmental education is to be outside, to experience the natural world as it actually is, to ask questions and find the answers.

Historically, environmental education has been about issues like pollution and acid rain. These are obviously important and necessary. But, to be effective, environmental education has to be hands-on and involve values—caring about the earth is learned, not a given. There’s less motivation to protect a stream if you’ve never explored it and don’t know what lives in it. We love best what we know best.

Today’s children present a greater challenge than in the past. These days, I have to teach fifth- and sixth- graders how to observe, something they once learned in preschool and kindergarten. They used to be able to spend 15 minutes observing and drawing. Now, after three minutes they lose interest. Television and computer games have accustomed them to sound bites.

This generation also has much less knowledge of the natural world. They’re more fearful, which inhibits their curiosity. They have more trouble slowing down to listen and look and explore. They watch nature programs on television, but without any hands-on experience they end up knowing facts that have no relation to anything real for them.

Given this state of affairs, where does one start? For me, education is all about curiosity and investigation. I begin by giving them a focal point, asking questions like “What is this frog doing and why?” This engages their attention, and we can end up spending an hour learning about metamorphosis and food chains, and forming other questions.

Environmental education can also begin with outdoor play. Outside, things move slowly and in cycles. A field trip where you take children out into the woods has a slower pace than in the classroom. You can see them relax, with nothing to do but look at things, nothing to do but wait to see what nature provides.

Outside, children get to see first-hand that an animal’s home is as important to it as their own home is to them. Face to face with the natural world, they overcome misconceptions. One child thought if you see a snake you should chop its head off. When he was able to hold a snake, his entire view of snakes changed.

And that’s where we see the difference between classroom and outdoor education. Children can plant bean seeds in class, they can dissect a seed and learn the parts. But if you ask them where seeds come from, or what they’re good for, they haven’t a clue. They don’t connect isolated pieces of information to the real world. Kids are concrete. They need to see how things fit in their world, they need to touch and personally experience nature. If they’re encouraged to be curious, and their curiosity leads to investigation, they learn to understand and respect the natural world.


For several years I worked with children in the Montague Center Elementary School, studying the pond on the school grounds, the Saw Mill River nearby, and the surrounding lands. From those studies came actions originated by the children: a “river alphabet” to help teach others about what plants and animals live in the river, and a collaboration with state fish and game staff to control Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant that infests the banks of the Saw Mill River. In short, direct experience led to investigation, which led to caring and engagement. That’s my idea of environmental education.

Colleen Kelley is education director at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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