Reprinted Article, December 1999
This brochure is based on the 1996 ERIC Digest, Starting Early:
Environmental Education During the Early Childhood Years, written by Ruth
A. Wilson for the ERIC Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and
When should environmental education begin - in the third grade? first
grade? kindergarten? The answer is -- even
earlier. Environmental education
based on life experiences should
begin during the very earliest years of life.
Such experiences play a critical role in shaping lifelong attitudes,
values, and patterns of behavior toward natural
Because young children learn about the environment by interacting with
educators and other adults must attend to the frequency, nature, and
quality of child-environment interactions during
the early years. Many young
children have limited opportunities for these experiences. In fact,
regardless of where they live, young children spend most of their time
settings or doing activities that keep them essentially isolated from
Recreation tends to be indoors (such as watching TV);
transportation tends to be by car or other motor vehicle rather than
walking; and day care programs -- where many children spend most of
waking hours -- tend to be oriented more toward the classroom than the
outdoors. The result is that many young children are at risk of never
developing positive attitudes and feelings toward the natural
or never achieving a healthy degree of
familiarity with their environment.
Attention to environmental education at the early childhood level is a
partial antidote to this concern.
Why Should My Child Learn About the Environment So Early?
The rationale for environmental education during the early childhood
is based on two major premises. First, children must develop a sense of
respect and caring for the natural environment during their first few
years of life or be at risk for never developing
such attitudes. Second,
positive interactions with the natural
environment are an important part of
healthy child development, and
these interactions enhance learning and the
quality of life over the span of
Children who are close to nature relate to it as a source of wonder,
and awe. Wonder -- rather than books, words, or learning all the facts
provides the direction and impetus for environmental education in early
childhood. Environmental education during the early years should be
on this sense of wonder and the joy of discovery.
How Can I Get Started?
The following guidelines can be used as a framework for developing and
implementing an environmental education program for preschool children.
Begin with simple experiences. Young children learn best through
experiences that relate to what is already
familiar and comfortable. Thus,
the best place to start is in an
environment similar to what they already
know. For example, focus on a
single tree in a backyard or playground before
venturing into a heavily wooded area.
Provide frequent positive experiences outdoors. Because children learn
best through direct, concrete experiences, they
need to be immersed in the
outdoor environment to learn about it. Optimally, the exposure should
provided on an almost daily basis. A one-time trip to a park or nature
preserve will have very limited impact on young children. Provide
simple experiences with the grass, trees, and insects in environments
close to home or school rather than spending time
and energy arranging
for day trips to unfamiliar places
your child may seldom visit.
In addition to
investigating the elements of the natural world already present in an
outdoor setting, you can use many different strategies to transform a
typical playground into an environmental yard. Start by adding bird
feeders, wind socks, flower and vegetable
gardens, tree houses, rock piles,
Then, provide your child with tools for experimenting and investigating
(for example, a magnifying glass, water hose and
bucket, hoe, rake).
Focus on "experiencing" rather than "teaching."
Because young children
learn through discovery and self-initiated
activities, an adult should serve
more as a facilitator than a teacher. Learning
among young children requires
active involvement -- hands-on manipulation, sensory engagement, and
Young children should not be expected to
"watch and listen" for any length of
time, nor should they be expected to always
follow your lead or agenda. Focus on what children find of interest
than competing for attention through adult-selected activities and
Demonstrate a personal interest in and enjoyment of the natural world.
Your expressions of interest in and enjoyment of
the natural world are critical
to your child's interest in the environment. Your own sense of wonder,
more than your scientific knowledge, will ignite
and sustain a child's love of
nature. Therefore, even parents with a minimal background in science
should not be intimidated by the thought of
implementing an environmental
education program for young children. Feelings
are more important than facts
when introducing young children to
the world of nature.
Model caring and respect for the natural environment. Parents should
caring and respect for the world of nature. Talking to children about
taking care of the Earth is far less effective
than demonstrating simple ways of
expressing care. Care and respect can be modeled by gently handling
and animals in the classroom, establishing or maintaining outdoor
for wildlife, properly disposing of trash, and recycling or reusing as
many materials as possible.
Young children often develop an emotional attachment to what is
and comfortable to them. If they are to develop a
sense of connectedness
with the natural world, they need
frequent positive experiences with the
outdoors. Providing opportunities for such experiences and sharing them
with young children is the essence of
environmental education. Environmental
education for the early years focuses primarily on young children
and enjoying the world of nature under the guidance and with the
companionship of caring adults.
Where Can I Get More Information?
information about environmental education:
ERIC Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and Environmental
The Ohio State University
1929 Kenny Road
Columbus, OH 43210-1080
Toll Free: 800-276-0462
National Science Teachers Association
1840 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22201-3000
Toll Free: 800-722-NSTA (6782)
References identified with ED or EJ are abstracted in the ERIC
References with EJ are journal articles available at most research
libraries. Those with ED are available in microfiche collections at
than 900 locations or can be obtained in paper copy from the ERIC
Reproduction Service at 1-800-443-ERIC. Call 1-800-LET-ERIC for more
Bullock, Janis R. Summer 1994. "Helping Children Value and
Nature." Day Care & Early Education 21 (4): 4-8. EJ 485 384.
Claycomb, P. 1991. Love the Earth: Exploring Environmental Activities
Young Children. Livonia, MI: Partner Press.
Laubenthal, Gail. Spring 1995. "Celebrate the Earth . . . Every
Texas Child Care 18 (4): 2-15. EJ 501 928.
Rivkin, Mary S. 1995. The Great Outdoors. Washington, DC: National
Association for the Education of Young Children.
Sheehan, K., and M. Waidner. 1991. Earth Child. Tulsa, OK: Council Oak
Books. Tilbury, D. 1994. "The Critical
Learning Years for Environmental
R. A. Wilson, ed., Environmental Education at
the Early Childhood Level.
Washington, DC: North American Association
for Environmental Education, pp. 11-13.
Wilson, Ruth A. 1996. "Nature and Young Children: A Natural
Young Children 50 (6): 4-11. Wilson, Ruth A.
Summer 1994. "Enhancing the
Outdoor Learning Environment of
Preschool Programmes." Environmental
Education 46: 26-27. EJ 484 153.
Wilson, Ruth A. Winter 1993. "Educators for Earth: A Guide for
Childhood Instruction." Journal of Environmental Education 24 (2):
Wilson, Ruth A. 1993. Fostering a Sense
of Wonder During the Early
Childhood Years. Columbus, OH: Greyden Press.
This brochure is based on the 1996 ERIC Digest, Starting Early:
Environmental Education During the Early Childhood Years, written by
A. Wilson for the ERIC Clearinghouse for Science,
This publication was prepared by ACCESS ERIC with funding from the
of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S.
Department of Education, under
Contract No. RK95188001. The opinions expressed in this brochure do not
necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of
Education. This brochure is in the public domain. Authorization to
reproduce it in whole or in part is granted.
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