Sensing the World

Welcome to the conversation about sustainability education in early years and school education. The principle under discussion is number 2 from the IAPENE pedagogical tool. Your contributions to the discussion are welcome. Please click on the comment button below.

Principle 2: Engagement with the natural world is perceived through the body and the senses, and mental faculties.

The example provided in the IAPNE tool says that “we see, hear, taste, feel and smell at a physical level. We also make meaning from these representations of nature.” Children at school or early years settings have opportunities throughout the day to be out of doors. When it comes to incorporating content about sustainability and the natural world into the classroom, it is useful to observe what the children notice, touch, respond to or engage with outside. This will of course vary depending on the environment in which they have to explore. The discussion below looks at some of the theory and practice implications for working with the children perceptions, the way in which they interpret and represent their understandings. and how this may impact on our pedagogy.

Photograph by Niki Buchan

Theoretical perspectives about recognising our embodiment in nature are increasingly common across disciplines such as human geography, education, dance and drama and even science communication. The common thread is the experience of the outdoor environment through the senses. This being in and experiencing the outdoors is always in relationship with what is there in the other than human world. This includes animals, plants, insects and weather conditions such as wind, sun, rain etc… Pauliina Rautio (2017) describes a way of thinking about these relationships by saying that it is about realizing that the relation is always already there, and as much influenced by behaviour and existence of other co-existing species as it is by our actions. This perspective was explored in Malone, Moore and Ward’s (2019) research which focused on young children who were preverbal to investigate their sensorial encounters with the natural world through what we called “ecological sensing”.

The three young children with whom we worked engaged in range of regular outdoor encounters where they felt comfortable to explore and where the researchers deliberately avoided prompting, suggesting or guiding but were observers in the background as they recorded and attempted to be attuned to the children’s encounters.

Practice: Educators involved in the IAPENE research reflected on Principle 2 identifying that it applied most strongly to the embodied and affective connections to the natural world. The challenge for them was to use this principle to prompt their own observations of the children’s engagement, to use this as a conversation starter and to ensure there were opportunities for them to engage the children further in the experiences for which they showed an interest or preference.

This pedagogical practice of allowing young children to ‘be with the world’ (Rautio, 2017) can take many forms and be prompted through a range of resources. Time spent outdoors in environments with diverse and rich natural elements is important to accustom young children to the textures of nature and with recognition for living beings that are non human such as plants, animals and insects (Ward, 2018).

For children who live in hyper urban environments, this encounter with different textures, smells, shapes and colours and movement may be unfamiliar and take some time to become accustomed to. Taking the children out for walks to green space and keeping a range of natural materials for free play in the classroom can support the sensory engagement. Creating descriptive rich stories about local flora and fauna, role playing or dramatizing ‘being frog’ (Ward, 2018) are also ways of supporting sensorial and affective engagement.

Hultman, K., & Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010). Challenging Anthropocentric Analysis of Visual Data: A relational Materialist Methodological Approach to Educational Research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23(5), 525-542. doi: 10.1080/09518398.2010.500628

Malone, K., Moore, S.J, and Ward, K. (2019), Children’s Bodies Sensing Ecologically: a study of pre-language children’s ecological encounters, Centre for Educational Research, Western Sydney University. 33% Contribution

Rautio, P. (2017). “A Super Wild Story”: Shared Human–Pigeon Lives and the Questions They Beg. Qualitative Inquiry, 23(9), 722–731.

Ward, K. (2017). Beyond Sustainability – New Visions for Human Econnection in Early Childhood Education. In K. Malone, S. Truong, & T. Gray (Eds.), Reimagining Sustainability in Precarious Times, (pp. 129- 142). Singapore: Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-981-10-2550-1_9

Ward, K. (2018) What’s in a Dream: Natural elements, risk and loose parts in children’s dream playspace drawings. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood Education, 43(1). pp. 34 – 42. DOI: 10.23965/AJEC.43.1.04

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