A Lengthy Discussion on Experiences with Environmental Awareness and Children

Well, according to my last post, this post was due about a week ago. On a related note, I have found that the combination of a never-ending to-do list and catching a cold is an effective deterrent for blog posts. However, my research into this issue has concluded that this deterrent only works for so long, thank goodness. But to the more important research…

Over the past couple of weeks I have gotten the opportunity to work with children as part of the various camps put on by Aspen T.R.E.E. My first experience working with the kids came on a Friday camp session, which is unique in that the children who attended this camp were not specifically enrolled for the sake of attending our camp. On Fridays, when the Aspen T.R.E.E camp is not in session, children who are part of the horse-riding camp run by Cozy Point Ranch, whose land Aspen T.R.E.E is founded on, join us for part of the day. For an hour or two, groups of 6-10 kids in the same age group are entrusted to us as, I suspect, a needed change of pace for campers and counselors alike.

The first group of campers to arrive Friday was the older group, between the ages of 7-10. The older group was a little easier to keep a handle on compared to the younger group that came after them. The director of the internship and I began by going around having both us and the kids introduce ourselves. The director than turned toward a tray of plants on the ground next us and suggested we introduce and get to know our plant friends as well. It was very much improvised, but placing these plants on the same level of humans and showing they deserved a similar respect and reverence was something I think could go a long way in shifting these young paradigms toward an ecological orientation. After introductions were made, the kids were split into two groups between the director and I, me beginning in the chicken coop and him beginning with the chicks and baby turkeys.

This being somewhat novel for me, I did my best to simultaneously teach the kids what I felt was important to know about the chickens they were dealing with, answer their questions and ensure both the safety of the kids and the animals. I noticed that regardless of the group I worked with, each group of kids took a very hands-on approach to the chickens, always wanting to pet them and hold them. Unfortunately it seems that this approach stems from viewing the chickens as objects rather than sentient beings, something to hold and care for rather than a creature in nature that should be respected. It is rather comical when these two paradigms come crashing into each other as it typically involves the children having the desire to hold the animals but then, seeing that they are actually independent creatures with independent minds, the kids chicken out at the last second and either refuse to hold them or drop them.

I think seeing animals display personalities and their own unique consciences can go a long way, but it may take spending much more time with the animals then we can offer for the children to understand this. Still, I tried to educate them the best I could and provide them things to ruminate on.

One idea I borrowed from another intern, whose specialty at the farm is working with the chickens, was to temporarily take an egg from under a brooding hen and let the kids hold it and feel the heat radiating off of it — a strange concept if you have only ever experienced eggs coming from the refrigerated sections of the supermarket. Of course, if you ask any child where eggs come from the vast majority will say that a hen (or “female rooster” if the child is young enough) lays them. I think the more important question is how much of that is memorized and how much of that egg’s origin, and its implications, do they understand. Letting a child hold an egg that feels warm may seem trivial, but I think it tethers the knowledge to something concrete and relatable to the physical world, to their world.

Before we left, the kids were instructed to go around and find four chicken feathers from around the coop to be used in a craft project after the tour. From the chicken coop I introduced the children to the baby chickens and turkeys, which is a whole new level of chaos from the chicken coop given the delicate nature of the babies. However, setting guidelines before entering made the kids much more responsive to this new need for cautiousness. At this point in the tour, an astute child usually asks if we will eventually be using these chickens for food. I really like the policy of Aspen T.R.E.E. in this instance, as it encourages us to give a direct and truthful answer to the child’s question rather than try to sugarcoat the reality. And if no one asks, then we will not actively promote this reality. In a way, the kids let themselves choose if they are ready to except the reality of the food chain, which is something that will vary from child to child and needs to have that flexibility.

With the time remaining after the tour, the children were brought back to the outdoor classroom to begin a small-scale natural construction project building God’s eye dream catchers. Its construction is straightforward hypothetically: take the four feathers and make a cross and then tie them such that a square at a 45˚ angle from the cross is formed. To be honest, this craft project was slightly above my ability to start, let alone for the other kids, the result of which was a chorus of voices asking for us to help them or do it for them. Either further instruction or a simpler task is probably needed for younger kids, but at least the children begin to develop the same intuition as those that helped construct the fairy house. Nothing is useless, not even a chicken feather, and with the right creativity the ‘problem’ of junk can be the solution. The paradigm of permaculture in action.

After building lord knows how many God’s eyes, some of dubious integrity, the older kids left for the day and we took a short break before the next group came in. This group was composed of children between 5-7 years of age and seemed to have smaller attention spans than the older kids, as well as an increased propensity for doing what they want and not listening to directions. Tied closely to this is that it is much more difficult to tell if the kids are actually absorbing what you are teaching them as you aren’t going to typically have profound conversations with them about these topics. But what you lose in order, you gain in creativity and a lack in self-consciousness that makes them much more willing to answer questions and share their ideas. It’s exciting from the standpoint of a teacher to ask a question and be greeted with a chorus of different voices giving the answer.

Following the chicken theme of that week, we began by giving the younger kids a tour of the chicken coop, the baby chickens and the baby turkeys. We then gathered all the kids up in the fairy house, which was now showing a week’s worth of age, the leaves of the house beginning to turn brown and the branches becoming inflexible with rigor mortis. The magic in the fairy house, however, seemed to be thriving. The internship director pointed out to the kids that there were fairies all over the house and especially hiding in the chive flowers. Soon there was a mob of kids clutching chive flowers they had found in the hut or picked from the garden to ask how many fairies hid within the petals. I realized this could be a way a good way to help kids learn plant anatomy and begin to identify plants. In his book The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder points out the importance of such practices when he notes, “Most contemporary Americans don’t even know that they don’t ‘know the plants.’” This illustrates, as Snyder puts it, a “measure of alienation” between many human beings today and the plants that make up the bioregions we live in, let alone nature in general (Snyder 39). Encouraging kids to spend a little more time up close and personal with the plants could be a step in the right direction if a little more emphasis is placed on examining the plants rather than picking them to find fairies.

Following a rousing game of duck-duck-goose with the kids (meant more as a time filler than having an educational purpose), the director led an impromptu discussion of water run-off as we stared at the majestic snowy peaks to our south. I don’t know how effective the lesson actually was from the standpoint of helping the kids understand these natural processes but I did like the spontaneity of the lesson. I do think you need that type of flexibility when working with younger kids, or at least the ability to make the most out of the learning opportunities we are given. Nature doesn’t follow our schedules, so it seems almost necessary that we have patience and flexibility when learning about the earth.

Our afternoon with the kids finished with a trip down to a nearby creek, accompanied by the alpacas, Roy and Kona, as our escorts. The plan was to have the kids participate in an obstacle course but kids are funny in how they find a way to entertain themselves, particularly when you give them another activity to participate in. Most of the kids simply wanted to throws rocks into the stream or make noises into the stacks of tires that made up the obstacle course. Even the alpacas were paid little mind. In these situations its difficult to know what to do: should you continue to let the children express themselves as long as their activities are benign or should you try to re-gather their focus in time to avoid losing their attention completely? Should you try and stretch their activities into a learning opportunity or is not worth the derelict segue way you have to make to get there? Just from this day I have a newfound respect for educators in elementary schools. It is a very difficult balance between encouraging creativity and making sure kids leave the classroom with the knowledge they need for the next grades, and life in general.

Half a week later I found myself working with the Earth Keepers camp, the weekly and Aspen T.R.E.E-owned environmental camp. Each week’s camp has a different theme, and this week was focused on solar energy, a theme very prevalent on the farm. Besides the geodesic greenhouse at the Aspen T.R.E.E site, there are also two parabolic solar cookers and the director himself specializes in using a magnifying glass to burn art into pieces of wood.

While the kids took part in these activities during the rest of the week, I worked with the camp on the day they took a field trip to a nearby reservoir for ‘fun in the sun.’ It was very loosely connected to the theme of the week, and, to be honest, most of my effort was focused on trying to keep the peace. However, that isn’t to say there weren’t learning opportunities to be had.

For one thing, I found fairytale-esque stories really do work to hold the attention of young children. This insight was serendipitous as my main objective in trying this tactic was to get the child in back of me to stop kicking the back of my seat like it was his job. Reasoning with him seemed to have little effect, so I ended up making up a story about the Seatbox people who live in the seat and don’t like their home being disturbed, including as many other embellishments to the story as spontaneity would allow. For the entire time I told the story I had his, and some of the other kid’s, rapt attention. I have no idea why kids love stories so much, but they do seem to be effective.

That and anything resembling magic completely draws their attention. After all the kids had their fun in the reservoir and came back from a crawdad hunting adventure we gave them some time to work on their magnifying glass art, burning images into pieces of wood. It is probably the safest experience kids could have with fire while still allowing them to express themselves creatively, albeit supervision is still required. But above all, the kids were mesmerized by it, and its something they wanted to continue doing throughout the week. I don’t know if they grasped what it meant from an environmental point of view, and I don’t know if emphasizing would have had any effect as this magic absorbed all of their attention. The magic of creating art using the power of the sun was more than enough for them.

A good portion of my research is to understand how children can become environmentally aware, and understand what teaching methods best encourage this type of learning. As I mentioned in my last posts, it seems like the key at this early stage is not to make them fully environmentally conscious individuals but rather let them see their options first-hand. This goal must be kept in mind especially given the limitations of the camp. The vast amount of our recruiting efforts is focused in Aspen, and it is the camp we are promoting at our booth in the Aspen Farmer’s Market. This attracts a particular group of kids to the camp, a fair amount of who are out-of-state children. This makes it difficult to establish any continuity or rapport with those kids, as it’s hard to have growth in only a week. If they walk away seeing that there are many solutions to the problems we face then that is as good enough of a success as you can ask for.

From my observation and participation during the camps, my main suggestion to improve the camp for counselors and campers alike would be to have a more structured idea of how to incorporate education into the farmyard activities and make sure this connection between education and activities is much more explicit. I fear the camps risk becoming glorified baby-sitting services otherwise. A formal lesson plan could be beneficial, and I plan on talking to the director to see if I can create one to be used during one week as my Design Project.



  1. cleath12 says:

    This sounds like a great way to spend your summer! Teaching children the importance of the environment and how all animals are singular creatures that deserve respect is a wonderful project. I particularly enjoyed the chicken anecdotes, mostly because I lived on a farm with chickens and boy do I know how they have a mind of their own! Trying to corral them into the coop at night was such a hassle so I can only imagine how children trying to hold the chickens would rile them up even more! Anyways, I respect the difference you’re trying to make and keep up with the good work.