This article has been expanded and updated.  See Nuturing Children's Biophilia: Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education for Young Children.

Moving from Biophobia to Biophilia: Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education for Children

by Randy White

2001 White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group

Extensive research in children's development and experience in early childhood education has shown that young children.

  • have unique learning styles that match their stages of development, which occur in an orderly sequence during their lives. All domains of development - physical, emotional, social, language and cognitive - change in a predictable way.
  • form their values in their earliest years.

The way children learn is completely different from adults, and to be effective, children's environmental educational environments and programs need to be designed to match children's developmental needs, interests, abilities and learning styles. Children are active learners. Their best learning occurs when the emphasis is on hands-on interaction, play and discovery rather than on trying to impart knowledge. Children have a natural curiosity that requires direct sensory experience rather than conceptual generalization. To be effective and engage children based upon their developmental abilities and ways of learning, the hands-on sensory experience needs to be immersive and open-ended rather than structured and scripted. When it comes to environmental education, the best learning environments are informal and naturalistic outdoor nature-scapes where children have unmediated opportunities for adventure and self-initiated discovery, exploration and experimentation.

Children experience the natural environment differently than adults. Adults usually see nature as background for what they are doing, as a visual experience. Children experience nature not as background for events, but rather as a stimulator and experiential component of their activities. The total sensory experience of nature-touch, sight, smell, hearing-needs to be present so it can become part of the child's world of imagination and wonder.

"Childhood has its own way of seeing, thinking and feeling and nothing is more foolish than to try to substitute ours for theirs."

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Children have a biological tendency to bond with the natural world. Natural environments have four qualities that are unique and especially appealing to children:

  • their unending diversity,
  • the fact adults do not create them,
  • their feeling of timelessness - the landscapes, trees, rivers described in fairy tales and myths still exist today,
  • they are the home of animals.

For children's natural inclination of biophilia to develop and for children to become stewards of the earth, they must be given developmentally appropriate opportunities to learn about the natural world based on sound principles of child development and learning. This includes developmentally appropriate contact with nature in their early years so they can bond with the natural world, learn to love it and feel comfortable in it.

If children's natural attraction to nature is not given opportunities to be flourish during their early years of life, biophobia, an aversion to nature may develop. Biophobia ranges from discomfort in natural places to contempt for whatever is not man-made, managed or air-conditioned. Biophobia is also manifest in regarding nature as nothing more than a disposable resource.

The problem with most children's environmental education programs is that they approach education from an adult's, rather than a child's perspective. One of the main problems is premature abstraction, teaching children too abstractly. Children do not even begin to develop the ability for abstract reasoning until starting at age nine. One result of trying to teach to children at too early of an age about abstract concepts like rainforest destruction, acid rain, ozone holes and whale hunting can be dissociation. When we ask children to deal with problems beyond their cognitive abilities, understanding and control, they can become anxious, tune out and develop a phobia to the issues. In the case of environmental issues, biophobia - a fear of the natural world and ecological problems-a fear of just being outside - can develop. Studying about the loss of rainforests and endangered species may be perfectly appropriate starting in middle school, but is developmentally inappropriate for younger children.

John Burroughs cautioned that, "Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow." The problem with most environmental education programs is that they try to impart knowledge and responsibility before children have been allowed to develop a loving relationship with the earth. We need to allow children to develop their biophilia, their love for the Earth, before we ask them to save it.

There are three basic developmental stages for children's environmental education:

  • Early childhood (ages 3/4 to 7)
  • Early grade school (ages 8 to 11)
  • Early Adolescence (ages 12 to 15)

Early Childhood - Empathy

During early childhood, the main objective of environmental education should be the development of empathy between the child and the natural world. One of the best ways to foster empathy with young children is to cultivate relationships to animals. This includes exposure to indigenous animals, both real and imagined.

Young children are implicitly drawn to animals and especially baby animals. Animals are an endless source of wonder for children, fostering a caring attitude and sense of responsibility towards living things. Children interact instinctively and naturally with animals, talk to them, and invest in them emotionally. A little-known fact about children and animals is that studies of the dreams of children younger than age 6 reveal that as many as 90% of their dreams are about animals.

Endangered species are not appropriate at this age. Rather, the common, everyday species that fill children's yards, neighborhoods and communities are the developmentally appropriate choice, as children can relate to them. Moreover, with these age children, the environmentally correct notion of not anthropomorphizing animals doesn't apply.

Children's exposure to relationships with animals needs to be cultivated with live animal contact, and animal-based stories, songs and other experiences. Developing an emotional connectiveness - empathy - to the natural world is the essential foundation for the later stages of environmental education.

Early Grade School - Exploration

Exploring the nearby world and learning your place in it should be the primary objective for this 'bonding with the earth stage' of environmental education. This includes opportunities to explore and experience the surrounding wild and semi-wild natural world found in children's neighborhoods and communities. Developmentally appropriate activities include creating small imaginary worlds, hunting and gathering, searching for treasures, following streams and pathways, exploring the landscape (natural, not adult manicured landscapes), taking care of animals and gardening. Secret hiding places in the form of forts and dens, both found and built, are a very important aspect of exploration for this age group. Plants have substantial interest to children when they provide wildlife habitat.

Developmentally appropriate natural areas for exploration should have landscape designs that emphasize the integration of plants into educational and play settings, rather than the typical adult concept of segregated "nature areas." Children do not structure and categorize the outdoor environment in this artificial way. They are more stimulated by a mix of natural and synthetic or 'built' elements.

Early Adolescence - Social Action

Social action appropriately begins around age 12 and extends beyond age 15. As children start to discover the 'self' of adolescence and feel their connectiveness to society, they are naturally inclined toward wanting to save the world, assuming of course that they had the opportunities in their earlier years to develop empathy for and to explore the natural world. Their opportunities for environmental preservation should be focused at the local level where children can relate to the outcomes rather than in some far-off unknown rainforest.

The world once offered children the thousands of delights of the natural world. Children used to have free access to the outside world of nature, whether in the vacant lots and parks of urban areas or the fields, forests, streams and yards of suburbia and rural areas. Children could explore and interact with the natural world with little or no restrictions or supervision.

The lives of children today are much more structured, supervised and scheduled with few opportunities to explore and interact with the natural outdoor environment. Their physical boundaries have shrunk. Childhood and the outdoors are no longer synonymous. Today, many children live what one play authority has referred to as a childhood of imprisonment. Children are disconnected from the natural world outside their doors.

Early childhood and elementary schools have the opportunity to help fill the void in many children's lives of regular access to the natural world. With developmentally appropriate natural outdoor environments and programs, schools can help our children develop to be responsible stewards of the earth.

To accomplish this, outdoor play areas need to be designed using vegetation and nature to create developmentally appropriate opportunities for play and exploration, where children can bond with and explore nature, rather than the paradigm of manufactured play equipment in a sterile area. Rather than playgrounds, children need to be offered discovery play gardens. With good design, programming and support, schools can also offer teachers the opportunity to fill the role of interpreters of knowledge and love of the natural world to the children.