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New ideas in Environmental Education with Children
by Phil Eckett
Walk - Stop - Talk. Walk - Stop - Talk. Sound familiar? Leading groups of children through the countryside in this manner no longer catches their imagination, nor does it hold their attention. Even one or two children who lose interest during a field visit can be disruptive, causing problems for the whole group. In my work, which involves environmental education with several thousand children every year, I had to find another way of helping children to understand and appreciate the joys of the natural world. The old methods no longer seemed to work - time for a change I thought.
I had heard about 'Flow Learning', a method used successfully by world renowned nature educator Joseph Cornell, and decided to learn more. Just a few years ago I attended a workshop run by Joseph, and found his methods to be fascinating. The enthusiasm instilled by this remarkable man was something I had not expected. If someone had told me I would stand in a forest in the Peak District with a group of people I had never met before, eyes closed, arms aloft, not just imagining but actually becoming a tree, I might have kept one eye open for the men in white coats. Joseph, with his personality, expertise and enthusiasm for all that is beautiful in the natural world, left me wanting to rush back to the country park in Basildon to try out all the new ideas that were now spinning frantically round in my head. Try them I did, and the visible reaction from both children and teachers by far surpassed my expectations. I have used this Flow Learning system ever since.
Flow Learning can be separated into four stages, each one naturally flowing into the next.
• Stage 1 Awaken Enthusiasm
• Stage 2 Focus Attention
• Stage 3 Direct Experience
• Stage 4 Share Inspiration
Activities that awaken the enthusiasm in children are the starting point in any learning experience. Children need to feel that what they are doing is interesting and enjoyable before they will accept it. Once children become enthusiastic it is easier to focus their attention in the direction you and the teachers want. Before the children realise what is happening they are using their senses, to hear, see, smell and touch - direct experience. By sharing these experiences with each other, children will feel a greater awareness of the natural world.
I have found story-telling to be an important part of an educational visit, sometimes to awaken enthusiasm and also to share inspiration. However the choice of stories can be very important. The stories I tell are the same stories that have been told many times over many years. They are the stories told by a truly remarkable people - the Native Americans, often known as American Indians. The many tribes of Native Americans have shown themselves to be the most caring people ever - respectful of the Earth, the ultimate source of life, and all its creatures and plants. Their belief was in the "Great Spirit", given many different names by each of the various tribes. The stories are often beliefs that were passed from father to son, from chief to warrior, beliefs of how the world was created, how the different animals came to be, how and why the seasons change, etc.
I have many stories to choose from, and the choice can be made in one of two ways. I have a story for any topic a class of children may be studying - water, seasons, mini-beasts, etc. I also have a 'bag of stories' - a small bag with a selection of items inside, each one relating to a particular story. By offering a child the chance to choose the story by randomly selecting an item from the bag (without seeing into it), the group feels the story is more personal to them, after all, they chose it. I have a favourite place within the park where I work, a small, grassy glade with a narrow entrance, just large enough for a class of children, away from the main paths. An ideal area for keeping control of the group and for creating a warm, pleasant, relaxed atmosphere.
The stories originate from many different tribes throughout North America. Some were told by more than one tribe, with perhaps just one or two small changes. However, they are relevant and useful all over the world and by all races of people. They were written by people who felt they were part of nature, not apart from it, and used to teach others to form a close relationship with the Earth, rather than trying to control it.
I start all my stories with an expression in Comanche-
U QUE KA NA DA THUU MOI TUI TAN
which simply means, "Let us sit down and tell stories."