Thursday, November 1, 2012

Researching Place Attachment and Environmental education in Elementary School Students: Adirondacks and the Altai


 My colleague Natalia and I began our work in the schools in the Altai last week.  The lovely teacher of this classroom of  about 27 students was kind enough and excited enough to collaborate on our study that she gave us  about an hour and 45 minutes to conduct a series of activities with her students. 

Natlia explains the tasks to the students (and the rules - your own thoughts feelings, memories - not your neighbors, though this is inevitably difficult) and I dutifully pass out papers, smile, and collect papers, since my language skills are not at the level of helping much more than that... thought I can say, thank you, good job! great! and well done and a few other things!

So here is what the research is about.  Forgive the lack of citations, this is my own general summary of some really interesting ideas that people have been researching in lots of ways for quite a while.  Our colleague at the University of New Hampshire, Eleanor Abrams, with whom I did my post doctorate, got me interested in this 'sense of place and ecological education' work and Natalia and I have been wanting to do this for several years. I have been working with teachers in the Adirondacks for several years and  Now we have our chance to work in the altai, another culture and another spectacular natural area.
Children’s perceptions of the natural environment around them, the components they value, and the ways in which they perceive the environment (positive, neutral, negative) are likely to influence the ways in which they personally behave toward it, and hopefully the ways in which they behave in community (decision making, voting, planning, engagement on behalf of the environment) as adults

Some researchers submit that student interactions with nature in early and mid-childhood influence their attitudes as adults.  Research around  ‘sense of place’ and place attachment suggests that emotional attachment, and or knowledge of  ecological relationships  to /about a place increase the likelihood that people will adopt a disposition to care and make more ecologically responsible decisions with respect to that environmental .

Young children learn about their environment in formal and informal ways that include parents, extended family, school work, friends and free play, household chores and agricultural work, and various media. These ways will likely be very different depending on the type of community in which a child is raised.  For example, children who live in cities will likely learn about their environment in different ways from those who live in agricultural, or subsistence communities. Clearly, many factors will influence the way in which children perceive the environment and their connection to it.

Here we focus on the relative influence of family activities (work and recreation), media sources (tv, movies, internet), and  formal school classrooms and texts.  We use descriptive word lists, drawing and narrative analysis, and a survey to analyze children’s attachment to and perceptions of self in nature in two relatively rural but very different areas of the world:   The Adirondack Park in Northern NY State and the Altai republic of Siberia in the Russian Federation.  We expect similarities in the components that students value based on the similarities in natural beauty (mountains, rivers and or lakes, forests) of both areas and also differences in perception of their relationship to nature and the ways in which they experience and learn about it due to the differences in the cultures.
Within the context of a community, if we understand the ways in which students learn about the environment and the ways in which they develop attachment to components of their environment, we can perhaps take some of the informal ways and incorporate activities into our formal school curricula.  For example; if students in rural or multigenerational communities tend to learn from spending time with grandparents or other family members working outdoors, gathering food,  etc. teachers may be able to create situations where students interact with a particular family member through interviews, or through sharing stories in writing about time spent in nature and what they learned.  These types of assignments can provide insight to what students are learning, its scientific validity, and create jumping off points of interest that students could research further in a formal school setting.  If students in more urban settings tend to learn through media, or more structured play spaces (playgrounds, internet, trips outside of their communities) then teachers could develop units that encourage exploration using these avenues either for assignments or class group activities.
Stay tuned......

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