The “Look, don’t touch” approach to environmental education

Environmental education plays an important role in the native plant movement.  Young people are indoctrinated with the native plant ideology and recruited as volunteers in native plant restorations. 

We were introduced to the relationship between environmental education and the native plant movement on our first visit to the Randall Museum in San Francisco.  The Randall is operated by San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department.  According to its website it “…offers youth and adults opportunities for active involvement and recreation in an integrated program of arts and sciences…The Museum strives to inspire creativity, curiosity, and appreciation of the world around us.”

On our first visit, the main room of the museum was decorated with posters that had been drawn by the children visiting the museum.  The posters covered the perimeter of the room.  Each poster featured an animal, a plant, and the message “Save California’s native plants for the [pictured animal].”

Poster at the Randall Museum

The relationship between each animal and the pictured native plant seemed tenuous at best.  Here is a picture of one of those posters, which claims that the Snowy Plover requires a particular native plant.  In fact, Snowy Plovers make no use of this plant or any other

According to The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, “Plovers…are specialized feeders that rely on vision to locate their prey, which includes all manner of invertebrates such as earthworms, adult and larval insects, amphipods, isopods, tiny crabs…” etc.  They don’t eat plants nor do they require plants—let alone native plants—for nesting because they nest on the bare sand.

In addition to being misinformation, this approach to environmental education struck us as rather sterile.  It reminded us of a public hearing about San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program at which a native plant advocate explained her objective for the education of children in San Francisco.  She said that children should be required to memorize the names of 30 native plants each day.  How boring, we thought.  Would children be inspired to love nature by such a rote exercise?

Separating children from nature

“Stay on designated trails” Signage in San Francisco’s “natural areas”

We are apparently not the only ones who have reacted to such an uninspiring approach to environmental education.  In a recent article in Orion Magazine (1), a parent tells the story of taking his children to a class at the Happy Hills Nature Center.  The nature center is surrounded by a meadow blooming with wildflowers, but instead of wandering through that meadow to explore, the children are required to go inside on a sunny day and watch 27 slides of wildflowers.  They are bored stiff.  When the class is over, they want to get outside, but they are told to stay on the trail and not to pick the flowers, even the non-native dandelions. 

This is typical of the experiences that children are now getting in our parks.  They are prohibited from wading in the creek or lake. They are prohibited from climbing the rocks or trees.  Fences and signs require that they stay on the trails.  They are told that nature is fragile and will not tolerate their presence.  They are effectively prevented from interacting with nature.  They may look, but they may not touch.

 The Orion article concludes that this approach to environmental education will not foster an interest in or respect for nature.  If children are alienated from nature, they will not have an interest in protecting it.  The article cites two research studies in which early experiences with nature are found to correlate with an interest in nature as adults. 

One study surveyed environmentalists to determine if there were any similarities in their childhood experiences.  It found that “Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two factors, ‘many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.’”

Another study interviewed two thousand adults in a wide range of occupations chosen at random in one hundred urban areas around the country.  They found that “Childhood participation in ‘wild’ nature such as hiking or playing in the woods, camping and hunting or fishing, as well as participation in ‘domesticated’ nature such as picking flowers or produce, planting trees or seeds, and caring for plants in childhood have a positive relationship to adult environmental values.”

Of course, we couldn’t help but think of our own early experiences with nature.  Vivid memories of building forts in the trees and dams in the creek came to mind.  Both activities would be prohibited in today’s parks.

Defeating the purpose of environmental education

Memorizing lists of plants or looking at slides of them in a darkened room is not a substitute for interacting with nature.  And that interaction will not take place behind a fence.  The result of such childhood experience will be adults who are not interested in nature and therefore don’t care about protecting it.  Ironically, those who claim to be devoted to saving nature are defeating their purpose by separating children from nature.


(1)    David Sobel, “Look, Don’t Touch,” Orion Magazine, July/August 2012

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