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Little Shoes on Slippery Pebbles: Young Children's Experiences in Nature

What do little shoes on slippery pebbles have to do with environmental education?

Or why young children don’t get the whole picture?

By Suzanne Major, Ph. D.

Anthropology of Early Childhood Education

I once asked an experienced international reporter, Marie-Ève Bédard, how young children fared in the waves of migrants trying to reach Europe in small boats on the Mediterranean Sea. I was particularly worried about the babies clinging to their parents, wide-eyed, looking at everything that was happening around them. She was surprised at the question and answered: " Ah! They are fine. Of all the children, it’s the teenagers who suffer the most from the ordeal of those migrations. "  

She explained that teenagers remember what they left behind. They can code and analyze the ordeal of the migration and anticipate some of the difficulties that lie ahead. They cumulate memories on " how they and others acted in the environment ". From those memories, they acquire knowledge about communication, survival and resilience. They also cumulate conscious and unconscious memories on " how the environment acted on them and others. " They might remember feelings, reactions and behaviours. I can only imagine what their bodies might remember of the living conditions on the boats, the blazing sun, the waves and the salt water that goes on forever.  

Very young children only perceive parts of what they are seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, or feeling with their skin. These parts are taken in one after the other. They are too young to get the whole picture. It will take time before they can start coding and analyzing information and retrieving knowledge from it. Very young children can get global information from the environment by exchanging glances with their caregiver, which can convey safety, worry or danger. If their basic needs are met, the protective cocoon of their egocentricity should hopefully carry them through situations. They can also react to sudden, surprising, unfamiliar or uncomfortable events. Again, the behaviours of the caregiver can reassure and comfort young children and even dismiss what was disruptive altogether. 

We all remember images of situations or events from our childhood. Some of us can remember scenes as far back as when we were babies. Now, those images might not contain all the information that was available when they were composed, as our brothers and sisters can demonstrate when recalling the same events! Nevertheless, they contain information perceived at the time by our senses, tainted by our feelings and sorted by behaviours that were exhibited. Those images are complicated concoctions of elements that represent experiences. Perception through senses has its functional limits in young children. The same can be said of observation capabilities, attention spans and memory. Also, global perception through the combined frequency of all the senses is in its developmental stage for them. What can we learn from this when considering environmental education for young children?

When I was five years old, I had gone on a fishing trip with my uncle Hub in an area overlooking the bay of Gaspé on the North Atlantic Sea shore. We had been fishing all afternoon and it was time to go back home. I remember looking at my shoes as I was walking on sand and slippery pebbles. Tired, I felt like I was slipping back and was unable to keep up with my uncle. I was worried. Suddenly, my uncle grabbed my shoulder and stopped me cold in my tracks, silencing me with his finger to his mouth. He stretched out his long arm and pointed to the bay. First, I realized we were standing on a very surprising and impressive cliff. My eyes went down the cliff, glided on the very still water in the center of the bay. The sun was setting in the water, lighting it with orange, red and purple. Everything was still and quiet. Then suddenly, a whale sprung entirely out of the water. It went up, and up, and up in a slow motion, twisting its tail upwards, then letting its huge head plash down, setting off a single round wave that rushed the shores of the bay. I was stunned and stared for a while, not realizing my uncle was walking away. Then, I looked around, noticing the darkness setting in and seeing my uncle’s hand too far to reach as I hurried to try and grab it. I was afraid.

What does this little story tell us about young children? First, that these are the memories of a five-year-old which would not have been the same were she three or four-years-old. Second, that in time and space, she was very much in the present and only conscious of her immediate surroundings. Now, worrying about her shoes slipping on the pebbles was a physical behaviour sending information to her mind, which created the worrying feeling of not being able to keep up. Suddenly realizing that she was walking on the edge of a cliff tells us that she was not aware of the surroundings that were beyond her vital space. While she looked at the coloured body of water, I can tell you that she did not anticipate the event of the jumping whale and that managing the information she took longer than the adult. She wanted the whale to jump up again, but it would not. She was hurried in her observation process and then was disturbed by darkness creeping up behind her as she was walking towards the sunset. The body, senses and mind of a five-year-old are immature and in the process of development. Her experiences are unique, and they are not those of a one, two, three or four-year-old. The elements of information they retain and the body of knowledge they derive from them are tremendously diverse and changing with each new experience.

So pedagogically, what are we to do when it comes to environmental education? Our little story about the whale tells us that 1) elements of information retained by young children can be noted, 2) feelings and emotions can be decoded and 3) the behaviours they produce can be observed. Behaviours are reactions … to feelings and emotions … produced through the management of perceive information by the human thought. Knowing this, we can plan educational experiences where time and space are considered in terms of the developmental age, learning contexts can be defined to stimulate senses and promote the " concrete mind "*, information can be organized to enable the intelligence’s operations such as deduction and induction, and early childhood needs should be anticipated for optimal experiences. Little shoes on pebbles and hard to reach hands should not hinder the sight of a jumping whale in the sunset and the feeling of amazement that should linger.

Now let me hear from you! I shared my experience with a whale as a five-year-old. Tell us about one of your experiences in nature as a young child, how old you were, what you saw, how you experienced it and how it made you feel. I will compile the information from the stories and share it with all of you. Let’s get a sense of very young children so we can plan sensitive environmental education.

*The " Concrete mind " (See My first blog. Baby steps into education to the environment.) is in fact the body having a mind of its own. It helps us understand how the environment acts on us.

November 2018 SM/sm