Feature Story

June 2017

Learning to Care: The Promise of Experiential Learning in Nature for Young Children

Anne Grall Reichel

Man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard. 
—Luther Standing Bear (As quoted in Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods)
Do you ever find yourself asking if we are becoming less kind, less compassionate, and less empathetic as a society? If so, you are not alone. Early childhood environmental education expert Dr. Ruth Wilson points to a plethora of research on the “selfish nature of our culture today.” She is particularly concerned about research pointing to a lack of social responsibility in our society and an intense desire to succeed “at any cost.” To address these trends, Dr. Wilson argues that early childhood communities must play an integral role in fostering the moral development of the youngest, most impressionable humans. But how do we do this as educators and caregivers? Can early experiences in nature help to grow individuals who care – not only about plants and animals, but about each other, too?

A Brief Look at How We Learn

Before we delve into our development as moral beings, it is critical to have a basic understanding and appreciation for how we, as humans, learn. Psychologists often describe the unique potential we have as humans to “construct meaning.” Science and math educators, grounded in experiential learning, have subscribed to this “constructivist” theory for a long time. They develop learning experiences that afford children with the opportunity to construct their own understanding of concepts by observing and manipulating the physical world. For example, children can grasp a complex concept like the water cycle more readily if they have observed puddles growing larger during a rainstorm and subsequently shrinking on a sunny day. Or, they can understand the concept of addition much easier if they have physically manipulated a group of objects into multiple permutations that all equal a given number. They discover that one plus four, for example, is an equally good representation of “five” as two plus three. 
This all makes good sense for science and math. But does this constructivist approach also make sense for moral development?


Constructivism and Moral Development

As far back as 1986, child psychologist Robert Coles reflected on the moral development of children and cautioned that we were making a grave mistake if we thought of moral development as following external rules supplied by adults. Following rules for the sake of momentary, extrinsic rewards has little to do with moral development, according to Coles. In that model, following the rule is inextricably tied to its reward. It does not foster the intrinsic satisfaction of following a rule for the greater good. It does not foster the ability to empathize or behave morally in the future. 
Researchers have come to understand that, just as the concept of the water cycle or the number five are directly linked to experiential learning, so is moral development. As Wilson poignantly noted in her well-researched article, a child’s sense of “goodness” emerges through a variety of social interactions and behaviors, their own thinking about these experiences, and dialogue with others about the meaning of these real life situations.
If children do not have opportunities to care for living things or observe living things grow, they can’t possibly understand the intrinsic rewards associated with caring for other living things. We can’t expect our children to care for us when we are old if they have never had the opportunity to learn from working side by side with us to care for other living things. Providing this care and talking about it are the very places where young children begin to construct an understanding of intrinsic reward. As education theorist Nel Noddings has noted, we care for and about each other “because we carry with us the memories of and longing for caring and being cared for.” 
Serving as a steward and caring for other living things extend Nodding’s premise. As adults, we have the opportunity to model caring for nature, provide a variety of experiences of caring for other organisms, and take the time to discuss why caring is important. In these ways, nature can provide an effective platform for nurturing the development of caring, compassionate, kind individuals.


The Promise of the Outdoors for Young Children

So where do we begin? Modeling is critical, but this does not mean that you should simply go out and plant a seed with your child. Rather, it means exposing your own thinking process to the young child, along with your joy and wonder in watching the living thing you nurtured grow and change. This takes time and commitment. It is not a one-time event but an extended process.
Nature experiences unfold in their own time. Each year, we find ourselves marveling at the same events we observed a year ago. As caregivers and educators, make this marveling transparent. Make your wonder and joy contagious through undistracted conversation with your child.


Sunflower Seeds: A Simple Example

You can begin with something as simple as a sunflower seed. Sunflower seeds and toddlers have a great deal of things in common. They both grow exponentially. And they both thrive on kind and caring behavior that requires attention and resiliency.
Start the sunflower seeds in a container where the toddler can observe their miraculous growth. Take the time to engage the toddler in moving the seeds to pots. Even though you might not be able to fully articulate it, try to verbalize your thinking process. “I’m moving these seeds to pots because they need food just like you. They will use the soil, water, and sunlight to make their own food.” Give voice to your thoughts as you place the pots in a sunny windowsill, and be sure to let the toddler water the seeds.
Later, discuss moving the plants outdoors. Provide the toddler with tools for digging, planting, and watering. Marvel together and share the wonder as the sunflowers grow. Record the growth of the sunflower next to the toddler (this is an exemplary use of technology with young children). Create a book of digital images with simple descriptions that chronicle the growth of the sunflower – for example, “it started out as a simple seed, it grew and grew and grew, and now it is taller than me.” 
Most importantly, continue to emphasize the importance of caring for another living thing throughout this entire process. Model your own sense of responsibility to the plant and make your own joy, wonder, and excitement transparent to the precious child who is sharing the experience. I have no doubt that it will stick with them for a lifetime.


Gently Capture, Observe, Release

Children learn about caring for other living things when they observe our behavior. Model the careful way in which you capture a pillbug, a worm, or any other small living thing. Observe the animal briefly and then gently release it. 
Make your thinking transparent to begin to build a sense of empathy. For example, you can say that “I want you to have a chance to see this beautiful creature, but it is important to be gentle so that we can safely return it to its home.” 
Simple modeling such as this helps young children construct a sense of caring and respect. Through this process, the young child begins to experience the intrinsic rewards associated with caring for other living things. 
As adults nurturing the sound development of young human beings, we need to understand that caring, kindness, and ultimately empathy are hard earned. They require our commitment to move beyond ourselves and experience the wonder of the natural world as a miraculous process. We need to commit the time and energy, and we need to share our sense of wonder of the world we live in, if we hope to foster a kind generation. 
This article is published in collaboration with the Children & Nature Network.
About the Author
Anne Grall Reichel, EdD, has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a science educator, teacher of teachers, and author. She has taught a wide range of students from elementary to graduate level. She earned her doctorate in educational leadership with an emphasis on teaching for conceptual integration. She continues to do professional development of teachers on a limited basis. Her first children's book, The United Forest of Kind, was released in 2017.