Essay Love Your Environment Inc

Over at OnEarth, David Gessner has recently published a piece that hits close to something that I've been increasingly thinking.

When it comes to inspiring people to live in awe of nature, with reverence for all life, with a sense of never-ending wonder and desire for open-minded inquiry, environmentalism doesn't really cut it. Like the word 'sustainability' it's become a hollow word, a word divorced from meaning, a word lacking in soul, separated from its essence.

For me that essence consists of, more than anything, a love of nature, a love of exploration, a love of dirt, leaves, trees, water both rushing and stagnant, small stones and great rocks, a love of animals both human and non-human (a distinction that the English language unfortunately makes more concrete than the reality), a love of play, of recreation.

Which is where Gessner comes in.

After writing about his daughter's apparent wolf obsession, Gessner references David Sobel about the perils of what's become traditional environmental messaging (save this! stop this! even, save ourselves!) may backfire with children:

Children who are taught that the natural world is being destroyed, that the rain forests are being mown down, and that a boogeyman called global warming is coming, often tend to withdraw and distance themselves from nature. In fact, there’s no surer way to send them running for the TV or computer screen. “The natural world is being abused and they don’t want to have to deal with it,” Sobel writes, equating this with other types of abuse. As it turns out, a better way to involve young children, at least kids from the age of seven to 11, is exactly the way they used to involve themselves, before play became more structured and the woods off limits. Sobel writes of those formative years: “This is the time to immerse children in the stuff of the physical and natural worlds. Constructing forts, creating small imaginary words, hunting and gathering, searching for treasures, following streams and pathways, making maps, taking care of animals, gardening and shaping the earth are perfect activities during this stage.” Eventually, of course, they will learn about the death of the rain forests, but first comes a more direct, and playful, connection with the so-called environment.

I'm pretty sure that this applies to children of all ages actually.

But maybe part of the problem is that we're not children of all ages, in the sense that our sense of wonder gets dimmed, either through familiarity or what we perceive as the need to get serious in life, to get real (as if reality is real from only one perspective).

It also applies to those of us who've been diligently working away, in our own varied ways, in the environmental movement for years—even those of us who have tried, as we've consciously tried to do at TreeHugger to varying degrees of effect and frequency, to as Gessner says not start with shoulds or finger wagging.

"It starts with fun," Gessner writes. "It starts with building forts in our backyards, it starts with animal explorations. And, it goes without saying, it starts with pretending you are a wolf."

True enough. Though I think I might be more at ease pretending to be a cat or walking low slung gorilla-like. Try the latter sometime. It's fun. Lower your butt and spread your legs a bit while walking. It ends up being something like the behind the scenes footage from Lord of the Rings, with extras being taught to walk like orcs. And it really stretches your hip joints. But I digress.

The thing is, when it comes to starting with fun, I tend to think that we mis-equate fun and animal exploration as simply gawking at cute animal photos (as undeniably cute as they are sometimes) or daydreaming about some futuristic building concept that will never be more than a concept, often for very good reason.

It may sound exactly like the type of prescription that Gessner advises against, but I wonder if it's not, in that there's a big differences between fun and exploration, and what's essentially distraction from the darker aspects of all this, the doom and gloom.

When it comes to getting more people to reconnect with the world around them that haven't done so, and to do so in a present, conscious, aware and clear-sighted way, neither distraction nor doom and gloom are going to do it. Nor will trying to get them to be "environmentalists" (I'm not even sure I personally identify with that term any longer), nor will talking about enlightened self-interest, or the economic benefits of combatting climate change, switching to clean energy, or not chopping down forests because of the valuable ecosystem services those trees provide do it.

But what will work, I'm increasingly certain, is encouraging ourselves, our families, and perfect strangers, in our own way, childlike to more adult, to build those forts, search for treasures, follow streams and pathways, and make our own maps of inspiration and fascination. In cultivating this love of the world around us, this love of nature (which to me includes a love of humanity, necessarily) all these problems of "the environment" will, if not solve themselves, at least become all the easier to resolve.

Environmental education (EE) connects us to the world around us, teaching us about both natural and built environments.  EE raises awareness of issues impacting the environment upon which we all depend, as well as actions we can take to improve and sustain it.

Whether we bring nature into the classroom, take students outside to learn, or find impromptu teachable moments on a nature walk with our families, EE has many benefits for youth, educators, schools, and communities.

As a long time supporter of environmental education and as an Adjunct Professor of EE at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, it is my passion to inspire future educators in this field. Over the years, I have asked each of my classes to share the reasons they teach EE, what it means to them, and how it can benefit learners of all ages. Here are our top ten benefits of EE. 

  • Imagination and enthusiasm are heightened

    EE is hands-on, interactive learning that sparks the imagination and unlocks creativity. When EE is integrated into the curriculum, students are more enthusiastic and engaged in learning, which raises student achievement in core academic areas.

  • Learning transcends the classroom

    Not only does EE offer opportunities for experiential learning outside of the classroom, it enables students to make connections and apply their learning in the real world. EE helps learners see the interconnectedness of social, ecological, economic, cultural, and political issues.

  • Critical and creative thinking skills are enhanced

    EE encourages students to research, investigate how and why things happen, and make their own decisions about complex environmental issues.  By developing and enhancing critical and creative thinking skills, EE helps foster a new generation of informed consumers, workers, as well as policy or decision makers.

  • Tolerance and understanding are supported 

    EE encourages students to investigate varying sides of issues to understand the full picture. It promotes tolerance of different points of view and different cultures.

  • State and national learning standards are met for multiple subjects

    By incorporating EE practices into the curriculum, teachers can integrate science, math, language arts, history, and more into one rich lesson or activity, and still satisfy numerous state and national academic standards in all subject areas. Taking a class outside or bringing nature indoors provides an excellent backdrop or context for interdisciplinary learning.

  • Biophobia and nature deficit disorder decline

    By exposing students to nature and allowing them to learn and play outside, EE fosters sensitivity, appreciation, and respect for the environment.  It combats “nature deficit disorder” … and it’s FUN!

  • Healthy lifestyles are encouraged

    EE gets students outside and active, and helps address some of the health issues we are seeing in children today, such as obesity, attention deficit disorders, and depression.  Good nutrition is often emphasized through EE and stress is reduced due to increased time spent in nature.

  • Communities are strengthened

    EE promotes a sense of place and connection through community involvement. When students decide to learn more or take action to improve their environment, they reach out to community experts, donors, volunteers, and local facilities to help bring the community together to understand and address environmental issues impacting their neighborhood.

  • Responsible action is taken to better the environment

    EE helps students understand how their decisions and actions affect the environment, builds knowledge and skills necessary to address complex environmental issues, as well as ways we can take action to keep our environment healthy and sustainable for the future.  Service-learning programs offered by PLT and other EE organizations provide students and teachers with support through grants and other resources for action projects.

  • Students and teachers are empowered

    EE promotes active learning, citizenship, and student leadership. It empowers youth to share their voice and make a difference at their school and in their communities. EE helps teachers build their own environmental knowledge and teaching skills. I hope these “top ten” benefits will give you the confidence and commitment to incorporate EE into your curriculum!  

  • Please share any additional benefits below in the comments section.


    Susan Toth has been teaching environmental education programs for over thirty years to audiences ranging from elementary school age children to senior citizens. She is Director of Education at Florida Atlantic University’s Pine Jog Environmental Education Center and also serves as adjunct faculty for the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point teaching Environmental Education Theory and Practice.


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