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Empowering children to love the Earth

Professor Helen Bilton explains why learning outdoors provides opportunities to empower children.
Photo of child on their knees investigating strawberry plants emerging through fleece
© University of Reading
‘We could have never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it.’
This quote from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot was shared by Patrick (who you met in Step 1.6) in one of our early meetings when we were developing the course and it really resonated. Schools have a vital role to play in empowering the next generation with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they’ll need to protect our natural environment as well as adapt to and help mitigate climate change.
Childhood is about moving from dependency and helplessness to independence and strength. We empower children by ensuring they become strong and capable adults. Even children with additional needs, who may be physically dependent, need to be allowed to be as independent as possible.
We don’t tend to refer to ‘teaching’ a child to walk and talk but, in a sense, we have helped them learn by providing the right environment and resources, being a role model and a participant in their learning. In the same way, we need to help children learn about the natural world by being in it, role modelling and providing guidance and tools.

Empowering through experience

We can empower a child simply by allowing them to be out in the rain. They need to experience it to understand that it’s not dangerous and discover what kind of clothing provides protection. I’ve seen children exhilarated and with a new sense of achievement having survived in the cold, rain and wind.
Making sure children have experience of working outside every day keeps them safe. Outside is then just a place to learn, not an unknown situation they’re unsure of how to behave in.

Empowering through making mistakes

Equipping children with knowledge about how slopes get slippery when wet, or which plants are toxic, keeps them safe and, within the right environment, children can make mistakes. I’ve witnessed a child lick a snail, which he soon discovered wasn’t a good idea, but he was empowered by learning through his mistake.
Children may get their hands and clothes dirty, may knock themselves, may break something or even lick a snail! So often these errors or mistakes are seen as a problem, when they are actually learning steps to precision. Learning through ‘mistakes’ allows children to achieve independence, knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes.
Risk assessment is more about teaching children the dangers, rather than removing the dangers. For example, stinging nettles are important for wildlife – they’re an important food source for caterpillars of peacock, small tortoiseshell, red admiral and comma butterflies as well as for aphids, which feed ladybirds. Tell children about them, rather than cut them down.

Empowering through responsibility

The responsibility of keeping something alive, whether it be a plant or bird, is a hugely empowering experience. When a class creates a bird feeding area, they will need a teacher’s support when buying resources, positioning the feeder, learning to observe, record and learn from the data. But eventually, they will be able to tend, observe, record and learn on their own and this understanding will be retained. Just like riding a bike or learning to write, you don’t lose the skill of learning to care.
Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

An example

Every year a school plants bulbs (daffodils and tulips) in Autumn. They take some children to the garden centre to chose and purchase the bulbs. Children prepare the ground, use dibblers made from upturned plastic bottles and plant the bulbs. They create observation schedules to record the places where the bulbs were planted and note what is happening – when shots and buds appear, for example. This is particularly fabulous because there is nothing to record other than the condition of the soil for October, November and December which gives a real experience of time passing.
The shoots form buds in March, by which time the class has plenty of data to analyse and then, finally, the flowers grow and each child takes one bloom home to give to their parent(s) to celebrate Spring/Easter/their achievements.

By empowering children with the independence to discover and learn for themselves, you’ll be giving children the skills they need to take on the responsibility of protecting the planet for the future.

Can you share examples of children you know who have become empowered by taking responsibility, making mistakes or otherwise experiencing challenges outdoors?

© University of Reading
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Teaching Climate and Sustainability in Primary Schools: An Outdoor Learning Approach

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