More Than Birds and Butterflies

Environmental sensitivity and social justice concerns can lead to action. 

How would you like your students to finish the sentence “I am a person who …”? A group of educators recently tackled this question while gathered at a two-day forum at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This group discussed how to move the focus of education from meeting academic standards (as a primary goal) to a commitment to fostering a more just and caring world.

I was privileged to be a part of this group of nature preschool teachers, teacher educators, educational consultants and program developers from around the country. And I was inspired by what the participants articulated they wanted for their students: They hoped their students would aspire to be people who cared about others, who had a commitment to the common good and who would be concerned about the environment.

Those of us at the forum are all involved in environmental education in some way and want students to become responsible caretakers of the environment. We also want them to care about social justice issues. Aware of how environmentalists are sometimes criticized for caring more about the environment than about people, we considered research on “significant life experiences” (SLE) associated with a lifelong concern for the environment.

SLE research indicates that one of the primary reasons people choose environmental protection as a profession is based on having had positive experiences with nature during their childhood years. More recent SLE research adds something new to this understanding—that is, that people who are involved in climate-change education and mitigation state a concern for social justice as their primary motivation. They recognize that the negative impact of climate change falls first and most heavily on people with few resources to combat such effects as extreme heat waves, rising sea levels, changes in precipitation resulting in flooding and droughts, and intense hurricanes. These negative effects will be felt by future generations, too.

Even prior to this recent research, some scholars noted that a concern for social justice could be viewed as an alternative path toward acting to save the environment. Fortunately, we as educators need not choose one path over the other: We can choose to instill in students both a “land ethic” and a “people ethic.”

Helping children care about the environment is good for both children and the environment, and positive experiences with nature promote children’s holistic development while also instilling in them a concern for the environment. But promoting the holistic development of children also has a social justice component. When I think of how I would like students to finish the sentence “I am a person who ...” I want more than statements about how they care for birds and butterflies or about the environment in general. I want students to care for each other, as well.

I welcome the idea that a commitment to working for the environment may start with a concern for other human beings rather than a focus on the natural world. I’ll never abandon the idea that positive experiences with nature during the childhood years can help children and the environment. But I’ll also celebrate the social justice path some people take in caring for the environment. Both paths will benefit children, the environment and the larger society of people.

Actions you might take:

  • Start a “Roots & Shoots” program at your school. This program builds on the vision of Dr. Jane Goodall to make the world a better place through the involvement of young people in such initiatives as protecting animals, supporting other children in conflict regions and helping people in poverty-stricken areas.
  • Teach students about climate change. Turn to the ideas and resources developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Fisher, Scott R. (2016). Life Trajectories of Youth Committing to Climate ActivismEnvironmental Education Research, 22(2), 229-247. 

Howell, Rachel A. & Simon Allen. (2016). Significant Life Experiences, Motivations and Values of Climate Change EducatorsEnvironmental Education Research, 22(2), 1-19. 

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer with a primary interest in connecting children with nature.

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Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

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