Environmentalism As An Experiential Education

Half a century ago, a wave of student protests swept over Europe and the Americas. Sparked by the Vietnam War and social and racial injustice, the protests saw the widespread emergence of social, ecological and political movements and reforms.

Today, students are once again spearheading a new social and ecological revolution. A notable difference, however, to the 60’s protests is that this time the students revolting are not in college — they are schoolchildren.

Inspired by adamant and unwavering figures such as Swedish Greta Thunberg, 16 years old, Scottish Holly Gillibrand, aged 13, and English Zoe Bonnett, 14, children around the world are taking the streets in protests targeted against climate change and ecological collapse.

In Belgium, for instance, 35,000 children took part in a climate protest in January, 15,000 Australian children protested in November, and Britain has seen nationwide climate strikes, with similar events taking place all over the globe. The US is yet to fully catch up with the momentum, although 7th grader Alexandria Villasenor and many others are steadily inspiring the American youth to join the cause.

The movements have gained inertia under the titles of “school strikes” and “Fridays for Future”, referring to the children deliberately skipping school, particularly on Fridays, to protest the lack of action from adults against climate change. The political message of these children is a distressing one: why should they be studying for a future which might not exist for them?

This movement presumably leaves many parents bewildered. Should parents be concerned about their children skipping school? Moreover, how can parents, teachers and other adults support 21st century youth in their mission of ensuring a habitable future Earth?

Fortunately, studies in environmental education and psychology shed some light on these questions. Professors Dr. Louise Chawla and Dr. Debra Flanders Cushing, in their article ‘Education for strategic environmental behavior’, emphasize that by middle and secondary school, students are both capable and entitled to play an active role as citizens. Furthermore, they suggest that children of this age should in fact be encouraged to take part in democratic processes and collective action.

Since governments and industries are “major sources of solid waste, pollution and the consumption of nonrenewable resources, as well as structural barriers against more conserving lifestyles,” write Chawla and Cushing, “it is critical for schools and out-of-school environmental programs to prepare students for political action”.

Thus, parents and adults should be actively engaging children in not only environmental, but also environmentalist education. Next to typical education concerning the state of the environment or environmental behavior, the professors should emphasize the urge for strategic education for social change. Importantly, in the spirit of 20th century democratic educator John Dewey, Chawla and Cushing provide a roadmap for helping children take part in democratic and environmentally conscious citizenship.

Firstly, educators should engage both children and adults as role models. Evidently, peer influence is already occurring at an unprecedented scale, as the case of Greta Thunberg and others illustrate. This means that the ball is very much in the adults’ court now, and they should above all show support by joining children in direct action and protests.

Second, adults can help children to immerse in direct environmental experiences. This can be as simple as taking time with children to experience nature or natural beauty. It can also mean engaging children with direct experiential learning, which can be both encouraging and enjoyable for children, as illustrated by a recent study on a salamander conservation school project in Stockholm, Sweden.

Third, children should be afforded the opportunity to participate in organizations and discussions as well as be able to set goals and targets around shared values. This means allowing children to self-organize without criticizing their efforts or cynically spreading rumors about the motivations underlying their protests.

Finally, adults should provide children with opportunities for initiating environmental actions and activism. This could in current context involve taking children to and, even better, joining children in ongoing climate marches, and providing both legal and organizational help in facilitating the development of more permanent institutions.

The environmental protests of children will not disappear as long as their motivation remains valid. With climate change, the sixth mass extinction and a wealth of other concerns knocking at their door, it is unlikely that these children will give up the fight — and rightly so. Whilst politicians such as Theresa May have criticized pupils over missing school, claiming that this hinders their capacities to learn, arguably such concerns are unfounded.

Above all, the growing activism of youth is an indicator that democratic education is, in fact, working just fine, and that children are, in the words of late David Bowie, “quite aware of what they’re going through”. It is therefore the duty of any caring parent or adult to show full support for these new social and ecological movements and facilitate their children’s growth into active democratic citizens.