From Ecophobia to Ecophilia: Teaching Kids to Love Nature, Not Fear It
Lourene Nevels and Ruth Solomon, Docents
Philadelphia Zoo, Philadelphia, PA
Part I The Origin of the Links Program
Since 1984, the Docent Council and the Education Department of the Philadelphia Zoo have participated in a cooperative educational program with the Philadelphia School District. It was planned for the winter months when zoo visits and touring were slow and was designed as a direct “link” with the curriculum of the Philadelphia School District. Thus, the program was called Links. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades were the selected audiences and three individual courses of study were designed to complement the school curriculum. The funding for this program was originally shared by the Dolfinger-McMahan Foundation, the Docent Council, and the School District of Philadelphia; and now that it is established, is on a reduced fee-basis with funding for bus transportation to and from the zoo underwritten by the Philadelphia Board of Education.
The programs are scheduled from October through April with each class having a two-part program consisting of a docent in-school visit, and a docent in-zoo tour. The participating teachers receive packets of information with suggested learning activities and vocabulary lists before the docent visits to familiarize them with the curriculum in advance. Follow-up activities are also included in the packets to reinforce the classroom lesson and to prepare the students for the in-zoo tour. The 3rd grade lesson focuses on how adaptations help animals in everyday survival. The 4th grade lesson emphasizes the basic needs of all living things within a habitat and illustrates how animals are able to use the resources in their habitats to provide food, shelter, and water. The theme of the 5th grade lesson is conservation and endangered species. It is the revision of the 5th grade lesson that is the subject of the rest of this paper.
At present there are 13 schools in the Links program serving 113 classrooms. The docents meet with two classes during each school visit, presenting an hour lesson to each class. The following week, the classes come to the zoo for a guided docent tour. Each in-zoo tour focuses on the material previously covered in the classroom lesson.
Part II The 5th Grade Lesson
For the past 17 years, the 5th grade program focused on why animals are becoming endangered at alarming rates and on what efforts are being made to save them. Katie Slivovsky’s (Brookfield Zoo) presentation at last year’s AZAD Conference (“Save the Elephants: Don’t buy Ivory Soap”), was a wake-up call for us. We decided that we needed to rethink how we structure and present the material we teach so that kids will be encouraged to love nature, not fear it.
How can we best teach children to love their environment and want to preserve it without feeling fearful and helpless in light of environmental threats such as air and water pollution, acid rain, and ozone depletion, rainforest destruction, and the killing for sport, trophies, and fashion? How can we talk about the realities of the endangerment and perhaps extinction of plant and animal species without creating even greater fears in children about the dangers of the environment and a fear of nature itself?
After reading an essay by David Sobel, “Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education” (Orion, Autumn, 1995), the basis of the Brookfield Zoo’s innovations, we redesigned the classroom lesson and follow-up zoo tour to nurture the children’s feelings of comfort and safety in the natural world and to encourage a desire to keep all living creatures safe and healthy. In his essay, Sobel says that we are contributing to a condition called “ecophobia” (“Fear of rainforest destruction, acid rain, and Lyme disease. Fear of just being outside.” p.3) by presenting to elementary school children information about causes of endangerment to and extinction of animals. Even talking about the solutions, the means of conservation, is overwhelming to children younger than 11 years of age because few of the efforts are ones that children can influence. “As a result of the curriculum initiative [consciousness-raising about
environmental problems and possible solutions], education officials found that students felt hopeless and disempowered. The problems were seemingly so widespread and beyond the students’ control that their tendency was to turn away from, rather than face up to, participating in local attempts at problem-solving” (p. 5). “If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems of an adult world, we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength”(p.3). “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth first before we ask them to save it” (p.12).
Sobel proposes developmentally appropriate curricular themes for children from 3 to 15 years of age. “What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it and feel comfortable in it, before being asked to heal its wounds” (p.5). “The heart of childhood, from seven to eleven, is the critical period for bonding with the earth” (p.6). During these years, which span the age range of our Links 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade programs, he says, “This is the time to immerse children in the stuff of the physical and natural worlds” (p.8). He gives examples of sending children out to explore the woods, fields, and streams near their schools and neighborhoods, among other “hands-on” experiences.
The majority of the inner city schoolyards where Links programs are offered contain not a single blade of grass, and the neighborhoods where these children live are miles away from woods, fields, and streams. Thus, we had to come up with a different way of giving students hands-on experience with nature. The “bonding experience” we now provide to children in our program is through learning to do animal observations. We teach this skill, used by scientists in learning how to save endangered species, in the classroom by using biofacts and live Madagascar Giant Hissing cockroaches. When the children come for the zoo tour part of the program, they practice the skill by participating in an actual observation exercise of an endangered animal led by their docent tour guide.
While we still address issues of conservation and the need to save endangered animals, it is a “kinder, gentler” approach that gives kids a hands-on experience rather than a sense of helplessness. The objectives of the program are (1) To encourage children to feel safe in their natural surroundings; (2) To encourage a curiosity about animals and how they survive in their environment; (3) To raise awareness about the importance of conserving our environment and protecting all life; and (4) To teach children a hands-on skill of observing animals for the purposes of appreciating their uniqueness and learning how to keep the animals safe in nature.
To accomplish these objectives, we introduce why and how scientists conduct animal observations and give examples of what scientists have learned from this process both in the wild and in zoos. We say, “We don’t need to go to the jungle or even to the zoo to do animal observations. We don’t even need to have live animals. Often scientists will begin their research by looking at parts of animals that were once living. They can touch these things and look at them more closely than if the animal is alive.” We use various biofacts, such as a turtle shell, a snake skin, a zebra pelt, a river otter pelt, a penguin pelt, and carry them around the room for the children to touch and observe and ask them what they see, what questions they have about the animal, and what their observations tell them. We try to guide them through the scientific process of observing, questioning, then looking for answers. Then we take the Madagascar Giant Hissing cockroaches around the room and ask them to look very closely and tell us what they observe about the insects’ appearance, behavior, food, etc. During the final activity, we use a plastic inflated globe of the earth, depicting where various endangered animals live. We ask students what they can do to improve the environment in their neighborhoods and what impact their efforts might have globally. When they raise their hands, we toss the ball to them and they give their answers. Throughout the classroom lesson, we try to stir their curiosity about how these animals survive in their environment.
The zoo tour follow-up lesson lasts for an hour, about 15 minutes of which is spent conducting an observation of an endangered species. In groups of 10 led by a docent, children watch a particular animal and record all observed behaviors during several timed one-minute intervals. At the conclusion of the timed intervals, they compare their observations and discuss what the behaviors tell them about how the animal lives.