Teaching to the Human: Contemporary Environmental Education

Gabriella Kitch

Basing education in the tangible motifs of nature and community can help to increase understanding and passion, which may develop a generation with increased intellectual competency, and the drive to address modern issues from a position that carefully weighs economic, social, and ethical viewpoints.


As children file into the classroom on the first day of preschool, they line their backpacks along the wall and sit crisscross applesauce on carpet squares. In the coming years, these children will learn basics such as singing the ABC’s, counting numbers, and recognizing shapes and colors; yet beyond these intellectual concepts, they will also learn how to cooperate, share, and socialize with children of their own age. John Adams, the author of the Declaration of Independence and second president of the United States once said: “There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living, and one should teach us how to live.” Starting with preschool and continuing on to higher education, education seeks to balance academics with diverse moral lessons such as universal respect, tolerance, and honesty. It is with the premise that education builds both knowledge and moral integrity that Aldo Leopold, the father of conservation ecology, decided to focus on conservation education as one of the methods to employ his land ethic. Leopold’s land ethic pushes for citizens to develop a sense of value for the land that extends beyond economic profit, which would result in increased conservation—the state of harmony between humans and land. In order to build a land ethic, Leopold stresses the importance of building an intellectual and emotional connection to the land, one of these methods being specific conservation education involving detailed research and observation of the land with college aged students.

Even so, Leopold seems to leave out a conservation education plan for younger aged children. As children spend increasing time indoors, it seems of utmost importance to incorporate nature into childhood education to foster a relationship that will allow for Leopold’s goals for conservation education to gain traction in upcoming generations. If we look closely at Leopold’s explicitly stated objectives for conservation education, it seems possible that some modern education philosophies centered on childhood development could form a more comprehensive environmental education incorporating Leopold’s conservation education goals and even his land ethic.

To determine whether recent methods for environmental education successfully capture Leopold’s goal to develop an ecological consciousness necessary for the progression of his land ethic, it is essential to outline Leopold’s specific objectives for his stated conservation education plan. The main criterion in Leopold’s conservation education plan is to produce a mentality that moves away from treating the land as a factory by instigating a relationship with the land. More specifically, “what conservation education must build is an ethical underpinning for land economics and a universal curiosity to understand the land mechanism” (Meine, Knight 262).

The universal curiosity Leopold references here comes from a broad education of the land that must build from the bottom and work its way up by “teach[ing] the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands” (Meine, Knight 265). In Leopold’s view, teaching in this manner will allow for both an ethical land economics ideology that will stem from the knowledge of the land and will cause one to want to keep learning more about the land. Conservation education must teach citizens that he or she is simply a “cog in the ecological mechanism” while also “developing a refined taste for natural objects” (Meine, Knight 262). Often, as an individual begins to realize his or her small role in the environment, natural things gain aesthetic value. In creating a value for land that carries past economic interests, a citizen should be able to see that “conservation is impossible so long as land-utility is given blanket priority over land-beauty” and it is “his personal philosophy of land use” that determines the degree of conservation practices (Meine, Knight 260). Leopold’s final objective for conservation education is to grow an affiliation between man and land that surpasses profitable self-interests, while also increasing the intellectual knowledge of the land, as greater knowledge can lead to greater appreciation. If these objectives are met, conservation will follow.

In his works, Leopold addresses the main failures of conventional education that stand in the way of developing a land ethic and seem to push people against conservation. Leopold expressed his concerns with conventional education in saying, “education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another” (Meine, Knight 268). As a person climbs the ladder of education and becomes more specialized, he or she seems to forget the broader picture and instead becomes increasingly focused on one mindset and one truth. Even conservationists lack the ability to see the land as a whole and end up conserving only what is important in the immediate future rather than looking at the long run (Leopold 528). Due to current land-use teaching methods, this mindset is often one rooted in self-interest. This is ever evident in Leopold’s description of conventional education: “it is difficult to give a fair summary of [education’s] content in brief form, but, as I understand it, the content is substantially this: obey the law, vote right, join some organizations, and practice what conservation is profitable on your own land; the government will do the rest” (Leopold 175).

Land-use education has attempted to make conservation easy in saying one must simply follow the rules, but if rules are written by society, and society does not grasp the importance of conservation, there will be no rules, and thus no obligation to conservation. This attitude is propagated through the fact that “the education in progress makes no mention of obligation to land over and above those dictated by self-interest,” (Leopold 176) causing the resulting land-use practices to degrade the environment instead of conserving it. Education should not only teach land’s economic potential, but should teach respect for land, in order to encourage a land ethic.

Leopold’s response to the misguidedness, or altogether lack, of current land-use education is to focus on higher education students. Perhaps influenced by his fifteen-year tenure at the University of Wisconsin and his involvement in many scholarly organizations such as president of the Ecological Society of America and the Wildlife Society, and director and board member of the National Audubon Society (Aldo Leopold 38), his proposed changes to conservation education center on the college-aged demographic. He states that it has been the responsibility of the University to ready their students for the environment, however “the University must now take on the additional function of preserving an environment fit to support citizens” (Meine, Knight 258). According to Leopold, it has fallen on universities to not only educate students about conservation, but also initiate an environmental consciousness that will affect citizen’s land-use practices. A university is a place “where controversies are conducted at such close range that they have a superior chance of smelting out usable truth” (Meine, Knight 259). The college setting to Leopold is the ultimate form of a think-tank in which the issues of combining the love of nature, the understanding of nature, and the use of natural resources have the opportunity to be sought out. In order to appropriately do so, “schools and universities need nearby pieces of land on which conservation problems and techniques can be shown, and research performed” (Meine, Knight 260). The importance of university curriculum in Leopold’s methods for conservation education can also be shown through his positions as the first research director of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, and the fact that his program’s—the UW-Madison's Department of Wildlife Ecology—legacy remains one of the best in the nation for its research, teaching, writing, and scholarship (Aldo Leopold 38). In addition to research, in the classroom Leopold stressed the importance of interdisciplinary methods, and according to his former student and successor Robert McCabe, strived to incorporate conservation into other disciplines, especially natural sciences and engineering (Aldo Leopold 38). In order to combat his frustrations with the economically motivated conventional education system, Leopold outlines new methods conducive for building an environmental consciousness for university education in both his works and his own teaching methods.

However, if Leopold’s goal for conservation education is to increase both intellectual and emotional connection to the land, ultimately allowing a land ethic to form, it seems logical to encourage a relationship with nature from a young age, rather than begin this education once students have already formed ecological habits. In fact, Louise Chawla in her article “Life Paths into Environmental Action,” reports that many adults involved in environmental action attribute their passion to “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence;” having the same experiences only as adults is not cited as a compelling reason for environmental action (Chawla 1999).

For Leopold, childhood and nature seem inextricable from one another; he grew up hunting, fishing, canoeing down rivers, and trekking through wilderness and he admits that his “earliest impressions of wildlife and its pursuit retain a vivid sharpness of form, color, and atmosphere that half a century of professional wildlife experience has failed to obliterate or to improve upon” (Leopold 107). It seems as if Leopold strongly values childhood interaction with nature, and perhaps does not include children in his conservation education plan due to his assumption that children will naturally spend plenty of time in the wilderness. However, a study published in 2004 shows that children are spending half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago (Thomas 2004), and according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in a typical week, only 6% of children ages 9-13 play outside on their own (“Children in Nature”). It is understandable that Leopold mostly focuses on young adults simply due the fact that his proposed plans of detailed observation does not seem age appropriate for young children. Yet with diminishing childhood connection to nature, children have become an essential part of conservation education. In order to reach Leopold’s goals of both emotional and intellectual connection to land, not only does the content of conservation education need revisions, but also the demographic the education reaches. Environmental education must be incorporated into education from the early years, rather than just focused on college-aged students.

If a connection to nature is no longer evolving during childhood free time, it is necessary to incorporate this relationship into the educational curriculum in ways conducive to the development of a land ethic. Richard Louv, an American journalist and writer who focuses on connections between society and nature, states that parents cite “disappearing access to natural areas, competition from television and computers, dangerous traffic, more homework…and most of all the fear of stranger-danger” as reasons for why their children spend less time outside then any previous generation (Louv 2007). Due to increases in technological advances and globalization, the relationship that Leopold and previous generations of children had with nature is becoming the exception rather than the rule.

Environmental education may serve as an effective method to rekindle this relationship, but the content must match a child’s curiosities and development. Modern environmental educators like David Sobel, who specializes in developmentally appropriate environmental education, warns against teaching students about conservation problems before the fifth grade. In his article “Beyond Ecophobia” he refers to teaching young students about environmental issues as “premature abstraction” where in an attempt to make children “aware of and responsible for the world’s problems, we cut our children off from their roots.” Due to the nightmarish effect this education can have, some may even develop a fear for the outdoors (Lopez 181-182). Leopold presents the ecological conscience as “an affair of the mind as well as the heart” that “implies a capacity to study and learn, as well as to emote about the problems of conservation” (Leopold 528). The role of childhood environmental education should entail practices in which the emotional connection created can be used as more of a stepping-stone towards Leopold’s academic methods of building a land ethic.         

Environmental education’s mission is twofold: foster an unwavering love for nature, and then teach about environmental issues. After denouncing modernized conservation education for children, David Sobel proposes a methodical approach to successful environmental education in order to give children plenty of time to bond with the earth before they are expected to save it. In “Beyond Ecophobia,” Sobel sections children off into three ages groups for which environmental education should be explicitly different. The first age group extends from ages three to seven where the focus is on developing empathy between the child and the natural word through stories, songs, and close encounters and relationships with animals, both real and imaginary (Lopez 188). Children of this age are drawn toward baby animals and “this natural emotional connectedness is the foundation of the idea that everything is connected to everything else” (Lopez 189). These childhood relationships will help the student to feel their connection to the biota. Education at this age should focus less on formal teaching, and instead on integrating the child in their environment in order to start their path towards Leopold’s structured conservation education.

During ages seven to eleven, environmental education should focus on the motif of exploration. Activities should consist of constructing forts, creating small imaginary worlds, hunting and gathering, searching for treasures, following streams and pathways, making maps, taking care of animals, and gardening— anything that “immerses[s] children in the stuff of the physical and natural worlds” (Lopez 189). It is through exploration that concepts such as the water cycle should be taught, because in following a stream to its end a student will then have a concrete memory to wrap such abstract concepts as acid rain or evaporation. Sobel regards the exploration group as the “critical bonding time with the earth” (Sobel 187).

The last group extends from ages eleven to fifteen and is centered on social action. At this age, students should be introduced to local environmental problems where they can then make a difference putting together recycling programs, passing town ordinances, and planning school expeditions (Lopez 190-191). Graduating to more controversial topics works well with this age group due to their desire for individualization, however keeping the issues local will give students a chance to become more aware about their actions as they see their effect on the landscape they grew up with. Although Sobel sections off age groups, he stresses that their respective motifs are not mutually exclusive, rather exploration activities should further empathy or should be used as a source of motivation for social action (Lopez 192). In following Sobel’s methods for environmental education, the curriculum can successfully build a strong connection to the earth before being faced with the problem of trying to fix it. By developing an appreciation for the land, learning about local environmental issues, then helping solve these issues hands-on, students are likely to build a practical environmental consciousness that will last a life time.

Although Leopold did not explicitly write about childhood conservation education, it is possible to evaluate how Sobel’s idea fit into Leopold’s mindset assuming Leopold would have supported the overarching idea of environmental education. As seen in previous paragraphs, both Leopold and Sobel share motivations of creating a generation of conservationists that treat the land with respect. Sobel’s biggest critique of the current environmental education program is how introducing large environmental issues at too early and age actually prevents kids from being interested in the environment and even causes children to be afraid of nature. In his essay “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” Leopold states, “Prudence never kindled a fire in the human mind; I have no hope for conservation born of fear” (Meine, Knight 263). Leopold and Sobel would seem to agree upon the fact that if conservation education reaches young children, it needs to do so in a way that produces a positive emotional relationship. In stimulating interest in nature and curiosity to learn about the natural environment, environmental education provides a strong base for Leopold’s concepts that are reserved for higher education.

Sobel also introduces the philosophy of place-based education. Place based education is “the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum” (Sobel 2004). This idea had stemmed from Bill Bigelow’s article, “How My School Taught me Contempt for the Earth,” in which Bigelow recounts how he once loved the earth, yet his school taught him to “actively not-think about where they were.” The teachers made no effort to incorporate his knowledge, although admittedly immature, of the world into the curriculum and in all topics the “school erected a Berlin Wall between academics and the rest of [their] lives” (Bigelow 1996). Place-based education instead aims to break down that wall, to integrate the community and academics so that “learning will be both natural and meaningful, natural in that it emerges…from curiosity, and meaningful because it is connected to activities valued by both students and those they love” (Smith, Sobel 29).

Although place-based education is not focused solely on environmental education, having a relationship in both human and natural communities can inspire a sense of stewardship in community members. Specifically, “people can experience a sense of contentment, meaning, and purpose” when tied to a specific place, which can create a “willingness to limit short-term profits for long-term sustainability” (Smith, Sobel 38). Also, already having developed a curriculum that uses the local environment lends itself well to the place-based environmental education outlined previously, but to a greater extent. Since most American environmental education programs only span a few weeks a year (Lopez 193), and the distance between child and nature is growing so large, cultivating childhood connection to nature is going to “require active intervention of some institution” (Smith, Sobel 38). In place-based education the local community can be incorporated year-round. Like Sobel’s proposed methods for environmental education, place-based education would serve as an emotional building block towards Leopold’s goals for conservation education, and perhaps even towards his intellectual goals.

Overall, Sobel’s philosophy of placed-base education might prove a viable alternative for incorporating Leopold's philosophy into education for founder children. In addition to creating a curiosity for the land mechanism, Sobel’s place-based education addresses Leopold’s goal of an ethical basis for land economics, where Leopold acknowledges that society should “examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient” (Leopold 188). The difficult balance between ethics, beauty, and economics can be maintained through place-based education because it shows children that their natural world and their social world have a deep connection, thus providing an understanding of natural limit (Smith, Sobel 30). Sobel’s proposed environmental education would most likely serve Leopold’s purpose for building an emotional relationship with nature, and Leopold’s intellectual and economic goals would be better accomplished with the more permanent connection to the environment.

Aldo Leopold outlines the importance of conservation education in the development of a land ethic; this education must begin with children in order to create citizens that are both responsible in the economics of land-use and have a curiosity to learn about the land. In his works, Leopold outlines that this curiosity is drawn from teaching a student to see the land, understand what he sees, and then enjoy what he understands. Modern day environmental education stresses that in order to better accomplish and enjoy learning the detailed intricacies of the natural world, a child must have a connection to nature based in love and respect. Teaching a child to see the land, and to enjoy the land before she even full understands it, can provide a foundation to Leopold’s goals that are reached through childhood environmental education.

Additionally, Smith and Sobel found that place-based education motivates students to learn, thereby boosting test scores, does not unbalance the pre-existing curriculum, and helps many teachers rediscover why they fell in love with education in the first place (Smith, Sobel ix-xi). The value of education is deeply rooted in the power it has not only to shape intellectual capital, but also character and the role of citizenship. Upon first glance, childhood environmental education and place-based education may seem to have a mission that is lopsidedly emphasizing the latter mentioned values, but the philosophies actually carry much more academic validity than perceived. Basing education in the tangible motifs of nature and community can help to increase understanding and passion, which may develop a generation with increased intellectual competency, and the drive to address modern issues from a position that carefully weighs economic, social, and ethical viewpoints.


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