We had been given a beautifully etched map of the woods... we navigated around an ancient oak, climbed over roots, ran through clearings and splashed through puddles... we were trying to find our way to the Top Secret Area...
My crew consisted of six lively 8-11 year olds. Earlier that day when they arrived at the outdoor residential centre they were welcomed onto the 'Sunship Study Station' and received the first stamp in their 'passport' – we were 'visitors' to our own planet and throughout the week we would intimately connect, head, hands and heart to how it works and explore our relationship to its systems. As an adult new to Sunship Earth, a five day residential programme for children to 'get to know their place in space', I was given little information by the other adults of the wonders in store and was encouraged to experience the week through the eyes of a ten year old.
Hence when we found the Top Secret Area I was as excited as the children... and when we were instructed to investigate the inner workings of a leaf by actually going inside one I followed the children in their discovery of the process of photosynthesis and their emerging understanding of the concept of energy flow from the sun to all living things.
Permaculture, Earth Education and learning about nature
Permaculture as a design system is rooted in an understanding of ecological principles. Therefore in considering how we can design an effective, inclusive and sustainable learning community, it is useful to consider how humans gain an understanding of ecological principles from an early age. How do children move from a sensory awareness of the natural world to a more conceptual understanding of natural cycles, energy flow and interconnectedness? How do we ensure that our children have the best possible start to understanding the 'why' behind the 'how' of our permaculture ways in a way that transcends the limitations of school?
As a geography teacher, I understand that 'learning about nature' is a broad objective in the geography classroom. However, I daily confront the limitations of the classroom if our aim is to learn about nature in order to live in harmony with it1. In contrast, Earth Education has the explicit aim of helping individuals in the process of 'learning to live lightly' and does this in an integrated and sequential way. As such it offers something I have not found for children elsewhere. An Earth Education learning experience generally includes the following characteristics:
• It increases understanding of basic ecological principles by making the 'abstract' more 'concrete' through kinaesthetic activities
• It happens outside in a place where natural processes can be easily observed
• It emphasises that we are part of the natural world
• It engages the emotions, senses and intellect
• It includes time for contemplation, community and creativity Earth Education's focus on developing comprehension of ecological principles sits as a precursor to a later understanding of frameworks such as Holmgren's Design Principles. Hence I would argue that what Earth Educators are doing through programmes like this is akin to a very effective and fun form of 'Permaculture Education for Kids'.
Looby Macnamara argued in Permaculture Magazine 32, that our children's education is a highly valuable yield to be considered and they can contribute to the productivity of a permaculture system in their own way. Children are indeed our future and I would like to emphasise that for the continued growth and strength of the permaculture community we should consider not just how they can learn in a practical sense from helping us in the garden but how we can guide their ecological understanding in a deeper way.
Earth Education is a vital tool for anyone interested in permaculture and education and programmes like Sunship Earth are a great idea for the permaculture influenced parent looking for something different for the holidays. However, there is much more potential for Earth Education to link with permaculture projects to mutual benefit, combining the educational and the practical elements of each.
At our first AGM, the new charity Earth Education UK considered how permaculture principles can influence the way we work. We judged that we have much strength both in terms of applying the principles and in offering an educational response to them for children. However, we also identified areas for improvement. We considered the principle 'creatively use and respond to change' to be very salient considering changes within the organisation (e.g. structure and demographics) and considering the wider challenges facing society (e.g. peak oil and climate change). The dialogue about how we can best apply this principle has thus begun and we are calling for people to get involved.
Please get in touch:
• If you are involved in a permaculture and or education project that would like to discuss possible links
• If you would like to find out more about Earth Education generally with the option of becoming a member of Earth Education UK
• If you are a parent or work with children and would like to find out more about our programmes such as Sunship Earth or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also follow us on Twitter @EarthEdUK
Author Sarah Smith is a committee member of the charity Earth Education UK and a secondary geography teacher in the North East. She did a Permaculture Design Course in 2009 and when not teaching or working in the community allotment is keen to explore links between Permaculture principles and geographical/environmental education.
Earth Education UK aims to promote Earth Education and make it more accessible to a new generation of educationalists and to speak to a new generation of children.
1 e.g. the industrial model of education we have inherited that is geared primarily towards replicating the economic status quo and thus is inimical to true ecological understanding
Wyre Forest Family Sunship Earth
30th July -3rd August 2012 at Bishops Wood Centre in Worcestershire. 01299 250513
Shortenills Sunship Earth
20th - 24th August at Shortenills Centre in Buckinghamshire. 01494 872288
For more information about The Sustainability Centre's please see http://www.sustainability-centre.org/