Promoting Professional Development and Best Practice in EE
A Rhizomatic Surprise—Early Childhood & Environmental Education
Story time. A long long time ago in 2017, a little project seed started to grow. As many projects do, it started with a problem and a possibility. Working with early childhood educators across the state of Arizona to share nature-based methods & techniques for developmentally appropriate EE -- I became aware of the fact that educators’ interest was far more prevalent than the programs available to assist them. Hovering at the intersection between EE (as a board member of my state NAAEE Affiliate) and nature-based early learning (as a program coordinator for a Center devoted to this high-quality practice) I found myself looking at a field growing faster than I could follow. But, before I jump into the possibilities, let’s check out that problem:
Throughout the rich and complex history of Environmental Education, especially as it pertains to practice in the United States, we have seen a strong focus on alignment with school frameworks--primarily serving students from kindergarten through 12th grade. However, with advances in neuroscience, brain research, developmental psychology, and many other fields, our school culture is beginning to recognize the irrefutable significance of children’s earliest years. 90% of our brain growth occurs in the first five years of life. In addition, Heckman showed us that the earlier we invest, the greater the return (fig.1)
Clearly, if EE wanted to meet its goals, cultivate environmentally literate, caring, & active humans, it was imperative that we all turn some attention and resources to the powerful growing field of Early Childhood Environmental Education (ECEE). And, it’s already happening. From 2012-2017 the number of nature preschools and forest kindergartens across the United States has quintupled, operating in over 43 states. Along with this increase in nature preschools & forest kindergartens, many more traditional K-12-based EE programs have expanded their services to reach younger populations as well. Smart moves (fig.2).
Along with this rapid growth in schools, organizations, & programs has come quite the demand for supporting organizational networks that can offer trainings, spaces, knowledge hubs, and collective advocacy efforts to confront outdated legislative barriers that impede the growth of this field. In addition to NAAEE’s Affiliate Network (which has 56 state/territorial affiliates operating across North America), early-childhood-, preschool-, and kindergarten-specific associations have been popping up across the nation to try and fill gaps that current infrastructure is unaware of or unable to fulfill.
This is where possibilities starting seeding as well. As I bounced around the dialogue of these intersecting fields of EE and ECE it was clear that educators, advocates, and other leaders had so much to offer one another & their communities. A unifying place to connect & support this action was vital. I wanted to figure out how to help the organizations that were already on-the-ground serving communities get the resources they needed to advance their work. As the largest organization service early childhood nature-based & environmental educators the Natural Start Alliance was a natural (hehe) ally for this development. And thus, the project sprouted roots.
As a young professional with a limited understanding of national network building, filling the gaps with energy & big ideas, I proposed my project to the director of Natural Start and found that he was already honing in on this possibility. Together we crafted a framework that could bring together both the NAAEE Affiliates and other blossoming nature-based ECE & ECEE associations to leverage their collective power & knowledge to feed this fire. The vision: Through intentional network design centered on nature-based & ECEE best practices, Natural Start Alliance and these other organizations across the nation will be able to unify this growing new field, and together, increase access to the vital equitable and inclusive early childhood EE & nature-based learning that our children and our planet so desperately need.
When I found out that my project proposal had been accepted into the ee360 Community Fellowship program I definitely did a little crying. To this day, this is still the most life changing program I have ever been a part of. From my first Leadership Training in Warrenton, Virginia to my first NAAEE Conference (and the second one as well!) I can’t even begin to describe the amount I have learned. Over the past two years I have collected data from NAAEE Affiliates and early childhood educators from across North America in an attempt to highlight the intersection upon which I stood and build the foundation for this project. With over 90% of NAAEE Affiliates surveyed reporting their interest in increasing support for ECEE as part of their organizations goals, and over 80% requesting assistance to do so, the demand for this support network was clear (2018). In addition, with 99.3% of early childhood educators & leaders surveyed calling for more support for nature-based ECE in their state, the connection was obvious (2019). With the amazing assistance of leaders like Emilian Gezci, Megan Gessler, Christy Merrick, and so many more we crafted MOUs, amendments, applications, and other foundational documents. As this two year Fellowship comes to a close, the doors of the Natural Start Regional Network begin to open as we look ahead to 2020 and 2021 to begin the launching of this national collaboration.
Ready for the surprise ending? How many of you were also blown away when you first learned about “Pando”, the grove of aspens in Utah that stands as one of the most massive organisms on Earth? I know I was. The reason this aspen grove is defined as a single massive organism is because it all stems from a root system called a rhizome. While above ground, you see a grove of individual trees, if you look below you’ll see their unifying highways of energy moving between them. Why on earth am I suddenly talking about rhizomatic root systems? Because while I thought I was watering and tending to various trees in my project forest, I discovered that the reason these projects were growing with resiliency and vigor was their root system: the ee360 Community Fellowship. The trainings, networking, and lifelong friendships that this Fellowship has helped me grow are both astounding and inseparable. From what I thought was a lone project: the Natural Start Regional Network emerged a grove of striking new connections. My town, Prescott, AZ is now poised to host the largest Earth Day celebration in Central Arizona thanks to my local team of nonprofits and the assistance of Fellow Tracey Ritchie. One of my undergraduate students is planning to head to India next fall to work with the Centre for Environmental Education thanks to an opportunity given by Fellow Bijoy Goswami. This spring & summer the EE program at Prescott College (where I teach) will be offering a new internship opportunity in conjunction with the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership thanks to Fellow Jenn Page. And, this is just the beginning. To close this journey through space and time, through a forest of projects big and small, I have only three words: Thank you, NAAEE. Wait, just a few more: Dream it and go for it, who knows what else will sprout along the way?