Childhood and Nature

IN HIS NEW BOOK, Childhood and Nature, veteran educator and place-based education advocate David Sobel asks the big question: what’s the most effective way to educate children so that they will grow up to behave in environmentally responsible ways?

To answer, Sobel offers tools and inspiration applicable to anyone whose life intersects with the lives of children. He argues convincingly against inundating children with factual information about nature, insisting instead that children need experiences that will allow them to muck about and (to paraphrase Robert Michael Pyle) get earth under their nails and a sense of place under their skin. Yet so often schools, not to mention home environments, divorce children from play in natural settings.

Children need experiences in nature that allow them to form connection, affinity, and ultimately love for the natural world. These experiences, which Sobel terms “transcendent experiences,” are more important than learning facts about nature and are actually prerequisites for environmental concern. Simply put, “Talking to trees and hiding in trees precedes saving trees.”

Sobel’s theories about children and nature education emerge from his natural-history-style observations of children at play. Sobel identifies seven “play motifs” based on these observations, which he translates into design principles for how to guide children’s experiences. The power of these principles lies in how Sobel has identified them. All too often those working with children fail to first observe children’s behavior, and then to use those real-life observations to enhance children’s experiences.

The design principles — adventure, fantasy and imagination, animal allies, maps and paths, special places, small worlds, and hunting and gathering — are illustrated throughout a series of Sobel’s essays that comprise the second section of the book. Although the essays were published previously, they remain surprisingly fresh, in part due to the introduction Sobel provides to each chapter, as well as Sobel’s conversational tone.

Sobel writes for his readers as if he has sidled up to share stories with fellow educators, parents, and observers of children. While offering inspirational tales of children engaging with their natural and human communities, Sobel hands us the tools we need to offer our children similar opportunities. “Won’t you come too?” he asks. How can we not want to accept Sobel’s invitation, join in the fun, and provide children with the “experiences that allow love to slowly take root and then flourish”?