Children and the environment: aesthetic learning.
Child research suggests that children value their natural environments. Among other things, contact with nature allows children to develop a sense of rootedness, test reality through active involvements and acquire a sense of one's environmental heritage. Parents can help foster aesthetic learning in their children by respecting the latter's private spaces, involving them in the planning of family outings, encouraging them to develop geographic skills, and participating in their school beautification and ecological projects.

Environment and children (Evaluation)
Nature (Appreciation)
Cohen, Stewart
Pub Date:
Name: Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1994 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0009-4056
Date: Annual, 1994 Source Volume: v70 Source Issue: n 5
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Full Text:
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 experiences:

* 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 appreciation.

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 discovery.

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 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 appreciation.

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 actively participate

* 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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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.

Whitman, W. (1949). There was a child. In L. Untermeyer (Ed.), Poetry and prose of Wait Whitman (pp. 346-348). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Stewart Cohen is Professor of Human Development, Counseling and Family Studies, The University of Rhode Island, Kingston.
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.