Magazine article Environmental Education

Reflections on Starting Environmental Education Whilst Valuing History

Magazine article Environmental Education

Reflections on Starting Environmental Education Whilst Valuing History

Article excerpt

Having trained as a teacher in Environmental Education I then worked across all phases of education. I spent two years working abroad in Papua New Guinea on Voluntary Service Overseas and a month in Albania supporting a kindergarten. However, it was as the Headteacher of Chelsea Open Air Nursery School and Children's Centre (COA) for nearly 17 years that my passion, knowledge and skills were able to flourish and cascade as to real environmental education at the grass roots.

Chelsea Open Air is a small maintained nursery school with 60 pupils and an attached children's centre. It is very diverse and inclusive, being in a very cosmopolitan part of central London. The centre was started in the 1920s by an American benefactress, Natalie Davies, who brought in the expertise of Dr. Susan Isaacs who was working at the Institute for Child Development (now the Institute of Education). Isaacs constructed a child-centred curriculum where play was the "work of children" which is still in use today. Adults support children co-constructing their own learning whilst the adults try to gain an insight into children's learning via sustained shared thinking, listening, taking part, showing respect, collaborating, conversation, and ensuring safety and security. The children are allowed to take risks and learn through challenges, discovery and trial and error. Hence a great deal happens outdoors in all weathers.

The other crucial element of Isaacs's work which is still valued today is the importance of holistic observation, allowing practitioners to observe children's real interests, interpret behaviours and understand children's needs more accurately. Isaacs vividly observed children behaving naturally, displaying positive and negative behaviours, strengths and weaknesses as well as social behaviours such as co-operation, friendship, aggression and guilt. She showed us how their emotional life shapes their intellectual development in a variety of environments.

The rich and varied environment indoors and out

Isaacs was influential in creating a learning environment indoors and out, which encouraged self-initiated play and activity as central to child development. She stressed the connectedness they feel to their local community and to the world around them. At COA, our children demonstrate great confidence in independence, creativity, exploration, inventiveness and curiosity as recognised by Ofsted in three glowing outstanding inspection reports over the last 10 years.

Children at COA are given great freedom of choice e.g. taking their shoes off outside in warmer weather, stimulating activities such as gardening, woodwork, pulleys, the use of the fire bowl for bonfires and visits by a mobile farm, rich learning opportunities all year round. The children's environmental learning includes:

* Being aware that water has to be conserved and using the water butts and watering cans to nurture the precious seedlings they grow.

* When clearing plants as they die down they compost them and help to dig this compost back in later in the year.

* They make bird cakes using junk containers.

* They cook and use the vegetables and herbs they harvest.

* They observe the numerous minibeasts which frequent the wildflower meadow that they established.

* Individual interests can lead to new learning such as finding conkers and then discovering many nuts and seeds; finding a bone leading to an interest in the many skeletons in the Natural History Museum.

The learning journey--starting with the child

Isaacs stressed that "Children's most urgent need is freedom to grow and think". She supported their unique interests and extended their learning in creative ways. This still goes on today! For example, she wrote about a group watching snail trails and how she drew a spiral on the blackboard after they noticed the shape of the shell. She then drew the spiral on the floor for them to walk on. …

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