Urban Forest Kids Philosophy
Below is an explanation of this new environmental education strategy, including a critical comparison of current successful strategies. Find UFK activities here.
What is Urban Forest Kids (UFK)?
Urban Forest Kids is an environmental education strategy designed as a one-week summer day-camp, although the activities can certainly be run by school teachers, either individually or all together. The program aims to:
● connect urban youth with local nature
● foster a culture of connectivity and gratitude
● reduce the human-nature divide
“It’s not getting back to nature; it’s realizing we never left”. Nature does not end where humans begin. People are a part of nature and can benefit from that connection in an urban setting.
As previously indicated, the primary audience of Urban Forest Kids (UFK) is elementary school-aged children (8-10 yrs.), living in the Halifax Regional Municipality. Specifically, the program looks to target children who do not currently feel a connection to local nature, or nature at all.
Urban Forest Kids is a unique environmental education strategy, predominantly defined by the following characteristics:
● Focus on place-based education
● Dedication to conducting activities outdoors (the “No Rain-Days” policy)
● Combined use of scientific, cultural, and emotional experiences
Comparison and literature review
References will be made throughout the article to other successful environmental education strategies. Emphasis will be placed on two programs in particular, due to their relevance in Halifax. These are the Nova Scotia Wild Child forest school, and the Halifax Tree Project guided walkabout endeavor.
Nova Scotia Wild Child is a forest school aimed at allowing children to play and explore at their own pace within a natural setting that they visit. Like Urban Forest Kids, their priority is that children form a connection with nature (“Adventure blog,” n.d.). The premise is that bringing children to natural spaces and allowing them to participate in positive experiences, is a remedy to the problems associated with increased technology, decreased time outdoors, and anxiety in a fast-paced world (“What is a forest school,” n.d.)
Halifax Tree Project (HTP)
The Halifax Tree Project began as an idea between a Dalhousie Professor, Peter Duinker, and his master’s student, Hanna Daltrop. HTP’s mission is to support the protection and sustainable management of urban trees and forests in Halifax, by fostering community-based stewardship (“What we do,” n.d.). Though not a formal organization, the Halifax Tree Project has successfully led educational activities relating to urban forests. These are casual events where volunteers give free walking-tours to interested members of the public.
The decision to engage children through a summer-camp was largely influenced by the Bioregionalist current, which states that schools can act as the centre point for social and environmental development (Sauvé, 2005). The summer-camp model also provides a teacher-student dynamic, which creates a natural flow for conveying information and encouraging social interactions which reinforce them. The day-camp strategy is currently being used with much success by Nova Scotia Wild Child.
Unlike many summer-camp deliveries, Urban Forest Kids leaders will ensure that the role of “teacher” is passed along to each camper. This too, is supported by the Wild Child program, which encourages personal exploration and child-led activities. Studies have confirmed that child-led strategies enable children to engage with nature to a greater extent than they would in adult-led activities (Waite and Davis, 2007).
Further, a study identifying the sources of adults’ commitment to environmental conservation or careers, found one of the most common answers to be the influence of a childhood socializer. Socializers included family members, teachers, and other adult mentors (Chawla, 2009). A summer-camp delivery allows camp leaders to take on the role of socializer.
Using Existing Frameworks
UFK can be delivered using existing summer-camp platforms. Rather than carving out new territory or attempting to create an independent program, I have chosen to create a program that can be run within an existing framework. This helps reduce logistical issues such as gaining public trust, acquiring funding, covering legal requirements, and garnering awareness.
Exploration of the UFK goal set
Clarification of “connecting with local nature”
The benefits of “connecting with nature” are widely discussed, including physical, social, mental, spiritual, and community wellbeing (Goggin et al., 2017). Despite this, it can be difficult to isolate a clear description of environmental connectivity. In this program, “connecting with nature” will refer to the combination of cognitive and emotional affinity with nature (Kals, Schumacher, and Montada, 1999; Raymond, Brown, and Weber, 2010), and place attachment (Gosling and Williams, 2010). As described by Dutcher, Finley, and Luloff (2007) “connectivity is not only about seeing the environment as part of ourselves but also about seeing ourselves as part of the environment”. Place attachment is described as a positive connection or emotional bond between a person and a particular place (Gosling and Williams, 2010). Thus, the ultimate goal of Urban Forest Kids is to foster positive emotions related to nature and place.
Connect urban youth with local nature
Just as a disconnect from other humans leads to alienation from society, a disconnect from nature also leads to alienation (Dutcher, Finley, and Luloff, 2007). Such concerns have come to the forefront of western consciousness since the release of the hugely popular book, “Last Child in the Woods”, by Richard Louv (2008). Despite wide-reaching concern for the environment, many widely varying discourses exist regarding the priorities and strategies employed by environmental educator (Sauvé, 2005). This program’s focus on urban nature is derived partly from the assertion that the majority of Canadians live and work in urban settings; therefore, their strongest connection to nature will be in urban locations (see Sinclair et al., 2004).
The primary goal of UFK is to engage youth through place-based education, who have not developed environmental connectivity; those who are the “environmental outlier community”. This is first for the benefit of the individual, and second for the benefit of the community. Urban Forest Kids does not advocate for the elicitation of specific behaviours, such as recycling, reducing litter, or limiting carbon output. The focus is on encouraging the creation of human-nature relationships, without the explicit intent that these values manifest as desirable behaviours.
The long-term goals of UFK include lifelong learning, social reform, political action, stewardship, and environmental problem-solving. According to a study by Gosling and Williams (2010), both affinity with nature and place attachment were predictors of environmentally responsible behaviour. Likewise, a study by Kals, Schumacher, and Montada (1999), reported that emotional affinity toward nature could be used to explain nature-protective behaviour. This suggests that our long-term goals can be achieved through a program aimed at developing nature connectivity and place attachment.
Foster a culture of connectivity and gratitude
UFK will reinforce a gratitude mindset, in place of the more commonly used guilt paradigm (Villaruel, 2016). Language used throughout the program will promote appreciation and thanks for nature, rather than rely on a loss-framework (described by Baek and Yoon, 2017). Guilt and shame are commonly used in environmental advocacy, with arguably “good” intentions. For example, the use of shame may have derived as a response to increasing concern over a perceived sense of entitlement in recent generations (Allen et al., 2015). Likewise, guilt may have been employed to counteract fundamental North American ideology stemming from the industrial revolution. As pointed out by Munson (1997), these have led to an extractionist view, in which the environment is framed as something separate from humans.
The Wild Child program has taken a different approach, employing the rhetoric of permission, through gatekeepers and a statement recognizing the unceded territory of the Mi'kmaq people. This demonstrates a clear intent to teach children respect and appreciation for the forest, while acknowledging the Indigenous groups who once lived there. The recognition of Indigenous people, and the ritual of permission, add to a sense of the sacred. Viewed in another sense, it is possible this strategy could potentially act in the opposite direction and reinforce a sense of separation between nature and humans. For example, a child coming home to a place they belong, does not ask for permission to enter. Conversely, this act may lead to an increased sense of being welcomed to a sacred place, as in the case of the gatekeeper.
To avoid reinforcing the idea of ownership, entitlement, or separation, I propose a framework be applied focusing on the concept of gratitude (very similar to that used by Wild Child). To avoid any possibility that a child be made to feel external through the process of permission, UFK would follow the call made by Dickinson (2013), who challenges people to perceive themselves as “with and of nature, not in it”. Through rituals of gratitude, I believe educators can foster the growth of what Chawla (2009) describes as ”environmental identity”. Unfortunately, this remains a personal theory, as I was unable to find any peer-reviewed literature discussing gratitude in environmental education.
Reduce the human-nature divide
As previously described, the separation between humans and nature exists as a fundamental part of North American ideology (Munson, 1997). In recent years, an increasing number of studies have pointed to the human-nature divide, and the importance of reducing it (e.g. Louv, 2008; Shwartz et al., 2012; Grimwood et al., 2018). I propose that the key to reducing our perceived separation from nature, is to encourage the creation of personal connections to it (e.g. Knowles & Sayers, 2012).; Rios and Menezes, 2017). A focus on individual experience and connection is what unifies the strategies of Wild Child, Halifax Tree Project, and Urban Forest Kids.
Defining characteristics of the UFK engagement strategy
Focus on place-based education
As a philosophy
According to Cresswell (2014), “what begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value”. I believe that a place-based education strategy, or what Sauvé (2005) refers to as the “humanist current”, is crucial for encouraging nature connectivity in children with urban nature. Since the aim of Urban Forest Kids is to engage city-dwelling children, the program needs to be physically based within close proximity. The underpinning belief is that belonging to a place is a prerequisite for feeling responsible to it (Sauvé, 2005).
Where environmental education takes place is equally important as what information is being conveyed. Authors such as Cronon (1996) and Dickinson (2013) warn against the fall-recovery narrative focused on “wilderness” and “pristine nature”. This strategy, employed by followers of Louv, may in fact reinforce the human-nature divide (Dickinson, 2013). Much forest school rhetoric similarly places an emphasis on taking children away from obviously anthropogenic areas. While not inherently negative, this could be contributing to obscured understandings of what nature is, and where people fit into it. It is my opinion that some renditions of forest schools have become overly concerned with getting away from the evidence of humans, leading to the idea that nature only exists in the absence of people. A place-based focus seeks to avoid these shortcomings by recognizing humans as contributing members of the local environment. The Wild Child program brought children out into densely wooded areas away from the view of homes and roads. However, footpaths, benches, and nature-art were visual reminders of human activity. This represented, what I felt, to be a healthy compromise between the “purist” view represented by Louv, and that of Dickinson.
Focusing on local nature also prevents the issues of financial and social constraints associated with more traditional nature excursions (Dickinson, 2013). Those affluent enough to travel to national parks and other natural destinations are better able to create opportunities for themselves to engage with nature. The Halifax Tree Project has exemplified the ideas of place attachment, with free guided-walks located in popular and easily accessible areas. The walks occur entirely within the anthropogenic setting, allowing people to access nature without requiring travel to wild settings. UFK seeks to similarly remove barriers, by bringing nature education into the city.
Dedication to conducting activities outdoors
In order for children to gain knowledge and an emotional connection with nature, they must engage in positive experiences with it (Chawla, 2009). These experiences also become predictors of nature-protective behaviour (Kals, Schumacher, and Montada, 1999). However, nature does not exist in a continuously sunny state, and few programs encourage children to experience the natural world in less-than-ideal circumstances. That is what makes Wild Child especially interesting, and in my opinion, valuable. They commit to conducting activities outdoors, regardless of the weather. Rain, snow, and wind are all considered acceptable risks. In fact, they are considered integral for children’s complete understanding of, and comfort in, nature.
The Halifax Tree Project has taken a similar approach, where guided walks are advertised as taking place “rain or shine”. While in rural communities, people are required to continue working or travelling in inclement weather, the physical layout of cities makes this unnecessary for urban dwellers. I believe this, along with liability concerns, has led education programs to become overly fearful of “inclement weather”. Like Wild Child and the Halifax Tree Project, UFK will adopt a “No Rainy-Days” policy.
Combined use of scientific, cultural, and emotional experiences
As revealed in a study by Goggin et al (2017), “people use physical, emotional and cognitive aspects to engage with their world and become ‘attached’ to a place through a mix of emotional, cognitive, social, cultural and behavioural factors.” Urban Forest Kids hopes to embrace the lessons presented by Goggin et al (2017). The program will take place almost exclusively outside and include both emotionally and intellectually engaging activities. Nature walks will be a daily practice, as will story-telling and individual quiet time. Campers will be given the opportunity to record experiences in writing, through spoken word, with drawings, or using personal technology (e.g. cameras and phones). For practical skills, campers will learn to use observational tools like magnifying glasses, binoculars, microscopes, and identification software (e.g. iNature, PlantNet).
Science and Emotion
Traditional environmental education models have relied heavily on fact-based programs rooted entirely in science (Louv, 2008; see Chawla 2009). Such programs allow for the stimulation of cognitive affinity (interest), through the communication of questions and information (Kals, Schumacher, and Montada, 1999). Dickinson’s (2013) article on the shortcomings of the Nature Deficit Disorder rhetoric, plainly calls into view the limitations of science-based education systems. She describes how in order for children to create connections with nature, they must be given more than simple exposure to natural places. Kals, Schumacher, and Montada (1999), call for a similar approach, stating that models explaining behaviours of nature protection should include both emotional and cognitive affinity. Part of the rationale for this approach is as follows:
A child who has already formed an emotional connection with nature and is inclined to structured forms of knowledge (science), will naturally seek out and acquire more information. A child who learns the name and properties of a thing will not necessarily create an emotional bond from that experience.
Balance is key. In other words; science answers the questions our emotions make us ask. This is supported by Chawla (2009), who recorded that environmental values were most often reported to have been conveyed indirectly rather than through direct teaching.
An interest in the cultural aspects of environmental education was inspired, in part, by the research conducted by Peckham et al (2013). Their team, which included the founder of Halifax Tree Project (Dr. Peter Duinker) researched the public values associated with urban forests in Calgary and Halifax. In their report, they referred to urban forests as the “quintessential meeting point of culture and nature”. This study demonstrated that people value urban forests predominantly for their aesthetic (beauty, smell, sound), not for their ecosystem functions (Peckham et al., 2013). This suggests that fact-based environmental campaigns, such as those focused on carbon sequestration and oxygen production, are failing to align with public values (e.g. https://www.adsoftheworld.com/media/print/wwf_lungs)
Another key aspect joining Wild Child, Halifax Tree Project, and Urban Forest Kids, is the use of storytelling. Western education focuses on factual and data-based ways of knowing, but the human tradition of storytelling gives context to that information (Ellis, 2017). Storytelling may be the perfect meeting place for science, emotions, and culture. Children can learn about cultural values through legends and folklore, while exploring personally held values through the creation of their own stories. This reflects the strategy employed by Goggin et al. (2017), in which researchers sought to connect people to place through walking and sharing knowledge between cultures. According to Kals, Schumacher, and Montada (1999), creating and sharing stories allows children to share experiences and communicate their feelings with significant people in their lives. This may function to amplify emotional bonds with nature.
Differences and Critiques
Although Urban Forest Kids shares significant characteristics with Wild Child and the Halifax Tree Project, some key differences have not yet been addressed. An integral concept in forest schools such as Wild Child, is the idea of engaging children in “risky play” (“Adventure blog,” n.d.). Supervised activities such as climbing, jumping, building, and whittling are encouraged starting from ages 3 and up. While I do not disagree with these activities, or the skills they engender, I do not feel they are crucial for the creation of nature connectivity or place attachment. Therefore, they have not been adopted into the philosophy of UFK.
The primary differences between UFK and the Halifax Tree Project are the physical delivery of the program, and the target audience. Urban Forest Kids is meant to be a fully immersive program in which participants spend most of the day engaged in activities, while HTP offers a bite-size version over 2 hours. This is due to their focus on adult education. Children are not encouraged to attend the guided walkabouts. I believe this to be a flaw, as it excludes families, which make up a significant portion of the population, and may be more receptive to environmental initiatives than single adults.
While much research exists pertaining to place attachment, the process in which connections are formed is not well understood (Goggin et al., 2017). This presents a challenge when determining the effectiveness of an educational program aimed at creating connections to nature and place. Given the qualitative orientation of the program, success of UFK may best be evaluated through Process Oriented Models, with the additional use of pre and post-test methodology. Given that the goal of the program is to increase children’s connectedness to nature and place, an evaluation method may include a connectivity measure, such as that proposed by Dutcher, Finley, and Luloff (2007). In this case, children would answer simple survey questions asking how they felt about different statements. However, given the age of the participants, and their reading/writing skills, a different approach may be more appropriate.
I suggest we model the narrative inquiry method used by Goggin et al (2017). In their study, researchers conducted short interviews eliciting thoughtful responses to open-ended questions. Responses were then categorized according to physical senses (sight, sound, touch, and smell) or emotions (care, play, seeking, grief, fear, and rage). When considering cognitive processes, the categories were comprised of key words (know, learn/teach, think/consider, ideas, understand/understanding, realize/conceive). Pre and post interviews with children and their parents, though time-intensive, would allow us to determine a change in connection to nature and place using the above model. An increase in the number of factors described by the respondents would suggest an increase in their connectivity to nature, place, or both.
While numerous examples of similar programs exist, and have been discussed, there appears to be no other environmental education strategy which exactly matches that of Urban Forest Kids. This presents a wonderful opportunity for growth and exploration. It is my hope that the philosophy of Urban Forest Kids can one day be expanded into year-round educational programs, and perhaps be offered to public school systems, home-school groups, and nature centres throughout Canada. As demonstrated in the above discussion, there is much to be learned from the observation of already-existing nature programs. Both the Halifax Tree Project and the Wild Child programs have been invaluable in the creation of this philosophy and are clear leaders in the effort to engage people with nature. It is my hope that with time and experience, UFK may grow to become a program of equal caliber.
Written by Julietta Sorensen Kass
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