There was a child went forth every day And the first object he looked
upon, that object he became, And that object became part of him for the
day or a certain party of the day.
Growing evidence shows that children both value and care about their
natural environments (Chawla, 1988; Cohen, 1992; Cohen &
Horm-Wingerd, 1993). Like adults, children view the natural environment
as a place to reflect upon, as well as preserve, cherished personal
memories. Research uncovers a reciprocal relationship between ourselves
and nature, one in which our environment frames the quality of our
development and how we perceive, value and structure our world
thereafter (Moore, 1985; Sebba, 1991; Olwig, 1991).
Learning from Nature
Contact with nature offers a variety of educational messages. Some
encompass aesthetic and spiritual values (Adams, 1991), while others
reflect an informational or attitudinal perspective (Euler, 1989). The
following appear to be the most prominent of these educational
* Acquiring a sense of rootedness. Children, like adults, need to
develop a sense of rootedness, or personal connection, with select
spaces in their environment. Such feelings are a natural outcome of
person-environment transactions and are often expressed in terms of
"my neighborhood," "my school" or "my
home." We also seek to create and maintain smaller environmental
connections that emphasize familiar personal space, or private areas in
our lives. These areas we define in terms of "my room,"
"my car" or "my bed."
* Encouraging adventure through exploration. One of environmental
educators' most important findings concerns how children of varying
residential and cultural settings acquire strikingly different attitudes
toward the natural environment. Rural children, for example, are more at
ease within natural systems, while urban children possess greater
facility in addressing the varied issues and problems associated with
manufactured environments. Greater awareness and more complete
understanding of our presence within differing human-ecological systems
is possible through exposure to varied environments.
* Testing reality through active involvements. Child-environment
studies show that children experience and react differently in real and
simulated environments. Children under observation during cognitive
knowledge tests generally underperform when they must rely upon
contrived or simulated pieces of information in order to represent the
environment (Blades, 1989). Clearly, learning to experience nature
itself is an important precursor to forming realistic and enduring
images of the environment.
* Acquiring a sense of one's environmental heritage. Through
contact with their environment, children gain a sense of where people
live and how they work and play. This learning reflects sensory, as well
as aesthetic, values. In childhood, through repeated encounters within
familiar environmental systems, we acquire a sense of what our living
space "looks like," what it "feels like" and how it
affects and is affected by us.
* The transfer of old learnings to new settings. Each person's
environmental heritage is a dynamic, ever-changing composite of past and
contemporary experiences. New encounters contribute to an ever-changing
mosaic and result in new ways of looking at the environment. The
distinct and multiple impressions that we form over time are the result
of accumulated aesthetic, cultural and personal sentiments acquired
through daily and multifaceted contact with our environment. Eventually,
we are able to interpret and reinvent familiar, as well as other more
distant and differing, landscapes. Eileen Adams (1989) describes this
process as one that permits us "to read the elevation of a great
building as if it were a poem and follow a street as if it were a
novel" (1989, p. 43). For children and adults alike, our
environmental heritage encourages the gift of imagination.
Children and Nature
The spirit and values associated with aesthetic education may be
explored in various settings. Direct contact with nature, however, is
especially useful for perpetuating aesthetic values. A report published
by the Department of the Environment (1979) in the United Kingdom noted
that fostering a sense of place and raising an awareness of roots is
crucial because so much of young children's experience in
contemporary society is second-hand.
The renewed interest in aesthetic education inspired researchers to
conduct several demonstration projects involving school-age children
(Adams, 1991; Hansen-Moller & Taylor, 1991; Snow, 1991). Urban
settings were the sites for some of these projects, while others took
place within rural communities. Each project embraces different facets
of environmental education. Most of them, however, reflect the
philosophy and values of the Front Door Project of the Pimlico School in
London. In this project, art teachers and children aged 11-18 worked
together to develop a neighborhood urban renewal program that would draw
upon architectural and landscape design (Adams, 1976). A guiding
philosophy of this project was the idea that people's contact with
their surroundings should encourage greater environmental awareness. The
environment should be considered as a dynamic laboratory in which human
activity is central and human values are of critical importance.
The Leeds Project
Middleton Woods, a part of the Middleton Park in Leeds, Yorkshire,
had become a wild, wooden wasteland after a history of neglect and
vandalism. Despite efforts to bring about change through a repeal of
neighborhood dumping and related despoiling practices, the woods
suffered through a continuing combination of misuse and lack of
A project was designed, in which two classes of 8- and 9-year-olds
from different schools worked separately to reclaim the woods. In the
project's first stage, the children explored the woodland on guided
walks that emphasized the pleasures derived from silent listening,
tasting wild plants, smelling the trees and watching the flow of streams
of water. The children's initial attitudes toward the area ("I
didn't know that this was countryside," "I thought it was
just a dump") were replaced by renewed excitement, revelation and
The project leaders encouraged the children to talk about their
experiences and to write poems or make drawings to express their
feelings. Next, the children used percussion instruments to express the
sounds of the woods. A composer helped the children create music to
accompany their poems. Throughout the school year, many different
projects centered around the woods as the theme.
Parents, taken to the woods by their children, talked in a new way
about the park. The children, in turn, developed protective attitudes
toward special trees and places in the woods. In time, the park became a
community resource that was guarded and preserved. Hansen-Moller and
Taylor (1991) described this experience in the lives of the children:
The Leeds project...is more than another practical example of nature
interpretation aimed at children. Rather, it represents an approach
that, by emphasizing the qualitative, subjective aspects of nature,
enables children to interpret it for themselves. Thus, they begin to
perceive nature as something with which they can interact and play,
rather than something to be vandalized. It ceases to be viewed as
something alien and becomes something that the children perceive as
belonging to the world.
Children and Beauty
A central issue in aesthetic education is whether children are
capable of appreciating beauty. Hodgson (1988), in a survey conducted
for the National Trust of the United Kingdom of Great Britain,
questioned artists, architects and other government advisors about their
early memories of interest in art and architecture. He found that many
recollected early sensory experiences, as typified by the recall of
specific images. Vivid colors, fanciful designs and characteristic
patterns of familiar objects, particularly those associated with fond
emotional experiences, predominated in the memories. These respondents
suggested that exposure to real, physical and emotionally stimulating
experiences would most likely enhance children's aesthetic
Parental Involvement in Fostering Aesthetic Learning
How can adults help foster children's interest in their
environment? The following suggestions represent a small sample of the
ideas to be pursued (Dighe, 1993):
* Honor childrens' private spaces, including their rooms,
closets, toy boxes, dressers and cupboards
* Help children design and plan their rooms
* Take frequent trips to local parks, old neighborhoods, historical
preserves and places in your community that hold special meaning
* Ask children to help plan family outings and vacations
* Participate in your child's classroom and school
beautification and ecological projects
* Start a recycling project in your home in which children can
* Share with your child cherished places from your childhood
* Encourage children to learn geographic skills
* Purchase a map of your state and/ or a globe for your child.
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Quarterly, 6(2/3), 42-48.
Adams, E. (1991). Back to basics: Aesthetic experience.
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Blades, M. (1989). Children's ability to learn about the
environment from direct experience and from spatial representations.
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Chawla, L. (1988). Children's concern for the natural
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environment: Ecological awareness among preschool children. Environment
and Behavior, 25(1), 103-120.
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environmental center's program for urban sixth-graders'
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Moore, G. T. (1985). The designed environment and cognitive
development: A brief review of five domains of research. Children's
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Olwig, K. R. (1991). Childhood, artistic creation, and the educated
sense of place. Children's Environments Quarterly, 8(2), 4-18.
Sebba, R. (1991). The landscapes of childhood: The reflection of
childhood's environment in adult memories and in children's
attitudes. Environment and Behavior, 23, 395-422.
Snow, J. (1991). A circle in the trees: Using art as a way to connect
to nature. Children's Environments Quarterly, 8(2), 38-41.
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Stewart Cohen is Professor of Human Development, Counseling and
Family Studies, The University of Rhode Island, Kingston.