Ok, it’s a pretty outrageous claim, but bear with me for a bit, and I think I can make a compelling case that, not only is this true, but it may well be the best and perhaps the only way forward.
Recent studies show that kids are potent advocates for taking decisive climate change action in both their families and in the larger communities. The more kids know about the environment; the more effective they will be. Other studies show that just over half of our students receive instruction on the environment. Finally, we know that the earlier and more hands-on kids get exposed to information, the deeper their grasp of the topic.
Thus, my proposition is simple; we should allow preschool children to learn about ecosystems in early childhood. This is certainly not an outlandish suggestion since most adults learned about the environment in just this way by playing outdoors, exploring creeks, rescuing bugs and animals, etc. The thing is, fewer and fewer children are allowed, or have access to, free-range play in nature, so this knowledge that we picked up as a natural part of being kids is just not commonplace anymore.
My first inkling that this notion could be true was discovering how hard it will be to accomplish. Let’s look at the issues. To understand the core principles that drive ecosystems, kids need to be able to interact with living things and what is required to keep them alive. Few preschool environments have anything alive in them. To make an emotional connection, kids need to have responsibility for the upkeep of living things. Indeed, one of the greatest things most of us learned as kids is that when you keep a bug in a jar too long without seeing to its needs, it dies.
Water is the foundation of any ecosystem, yet preschoolers only know “tame” water that comes from a tap and have, in nearly every case, no experience with water that things live in. Lucky are the kids who have an aquarium in their classroom, but for all the hands-on learning these provide, they might as well be a video played on a screen. I don’t want to belabor this point anymore as I think you can see that we have a long way to go before most children have meaningful exposure to the fundamental elements of an ecosystem and how these work together dynamically.
I firmly believe that every early childhood program should have a closed ecosystem aquarium. The reason this is important is that such displays pose for children a great mystery; Since nothing can come in or out, how do the fish breathe and what do they eat? This is the fundamental question facing our planet today and for children to be able to see this in a microcosm can be profound. For kids, it can become a meme that drives their orientation to the environment lifelong.
Closed aquariums are commercially available as Ecospheres, and they can also be made from materials readily available locally or online. Ideally, there is an example present on the first day of class. This is followed by assembling one with the children as it takes a while for them to become stable, and this is a powerful way for the children to see the dynamics of how the system works.
To further these lessons, it is great to hatch and grow brine shrimp. Brine shrimp require a lot of attention. As continuous filter feeders, they must be fed often; but at the same time, they are sensitive to poor water quality. Through trial and error, children will learn how fragile and complex the narrow range of conditions are in the shrimp will survive. As they succeed will be all the more rewarding as they directly experience life and death.
From this brief discussion, you can see that helping kids learn about the environment is doable. The problem is that so few programs prioritize this subject or a hands-on approach to learning. As parents and as a society we must demand that environmental education becomes a priority.
So far, this has been a relatively easy discussion. In part two, we will look at scaling this concept up, so children have the opportunity to have hands-on interaction with living systems on a daily basis which is much harder. Part three will look at the early childhood environment as an ecosystem and who it can play a crucial role in saving the planet.