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The Role of the Expressive Arts
in Environmental Education

by John Caddy


Love of Earth: Identification and Knowing

What should environmental education do? What should it be? What's wrong with what we're doing now? How can EE most effectively be addressed with kids? The following assertions and notes try to answer these questions and sum up much what I have come to know and believe over the past 25 years of watching educators struggle with these issues.

The starting point and center, the root and flower of environmental education must be love of the earth.

So what is love of the earth? What kind of love do I mean? I do not mean sentimentality, which if it is love at all, is characterized by an abundance of superficial, overstated emotion, in which thought has little part. I do not mean schmaltz, nor mawkishness, not Disneyland. I do mean a deep, tender affection for earth, and a recognized kinship with earth's other beings.  I do mean a love in which emotion and thought harmonize, where what we feel and what we know reinforce and balance each other.

Deep Ecologists remind us that when we love, we identify with what we love. We connect our personal well-being with the well-being of what we love. We include the loved one within our perception and definition of self.

When we love the earth, we recognize that we belong to earth.  When we love the earth, or the Biosphere; or Nature--whatever you want to call the Whole--we are likely to act toward earth in positive, non-destructive ways.

When you love the earth, to injure earth is to injure the self. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza taught us this in the seventeenth century: We are as large as our loves.

When we love we are enlarged by the inclusion in our selves of what we love.
An old and useful adage says that You cannot love what you do not know.

Perhaps this is true, but at first glance this adage sounds as if information were the most crucial ingredient in love. It is not. To find the crucial ingredients of love, we must ask: What does it mean to know?

In English, we have just one word for know, yet there are many ways of knowing. In Ancient Greek, there were distinctly recognized ways of knowing: among them were noesis  and dianoia , which have a crucial difference.

First-hand experience gives what the Ancient Greeks called noesis, (direct apprehension of). This is deeply experienced knowing, for the entire body and all senses, the whole self, are intimately involved. Intuiton reinforces it. You know because you experienced it.

Reading or watching a video, or virtual reality, or listening to a lecture, or reading as you are doing right now, or other forms of vicarious, second-hand experience, impart quite a different, more purely intellectual kind of knowing, dianoia, (knowledge about). You know because you heard about it. Much school learning, too much, is knowledge about.

Direct intimate experience (noesis) is the most crucial ingredient of love. The old adage, in other words, should probably read, You cannot love what you have not intimately experienced.

So the problem for instruction may be: What experiences of Earth can we create for people that will result in love?

We already know one answer--Take all the kids out into the woods; immerse them in Nature positively and they will love it.

Problem: we can't take everyone out into the forest. There are far too many of us for that. No system of Environmental Learning Centers,  however excellent, can accommodate the sheer numbers required. Simple arithmetic shows us that.

But there are ways to create intimate experiences with Nature that are do-able in and near the classroom. (See Intimate Nature in and Near the Classroom).

One thing that allows us to do this is a fundamental recognition that we humans are part of nature, which we have been strenuously denying for several hundred years (see Ecological Literacy, below). Once you perceive that we are natural beings, aspects of the human can be studied legitimately as expressions of nature.

A second thing that allows intimate experience with Nature is the character of creative process, the power of the creative act experienced in making art.

Environmental Education Is Not Yet Effective

Environmental education is generally not very effective--although it has been in American schools for some forty years. After a strong beginning, environmental education has devolved, in too many classrooms, into a pollution unit, an endangered species unit, and a rainforest unit, all problem-centered.

Environmental education, as practiced, falls short in five major aspects:

(1) Information is not enough:
Engage the heart and the mind will follow

Environmental educators have tended to believe that once people have information, it will automatically change their behavior. This is a naive belief that ignores most of what we know about how people learn. Thirty years of wishful thinking has not changed much behavior. One instance of such naivete is this author's quote from his preface to an excellent survey of the ecology of Minnesota, published in 1995:

The purpose of this book is not to tell people what they should do or should not do to their environment, nor to expound on philosophical aspects of life or nature. Rather, the book explains how ecological systems are structured, how they work, and how they respond to what is done to them and around them. This knowledge provides a basis for understanding Minnesota's ecosystems. Such understanding will ultimately lead to their wise use. (emphasis added)

                                        --John Tester, Minnesota's Natural Heritage, 1995

This apparently obvious difficulty is more comprehensible when we consider the rationalist training of scientists, who have dominated the teaching of EE to date. Information perhaps should be enough. But it's not. Environmental education has not sufficiently acknowledged the role of emotion and direct empirical experience in the process of persuasion and creating commitment.

• Engage the heart, and the mind will follow. Human nature is of course emotional as well as cognitive, but so often our patterns of teaching ignore that knowledge. A change in human behavior cannot be accomplished  simply by providing information.

• Instead, people change by gaining:

• knowledge (information coherently linked to other information) which must then in turn be linked to
• intimate heartfelt experience, which connects knowledge to emotion and to valuing.
• Once these links are made, knowledge is on its way to becoming wisdom.


(2) The Human/Nature Split

Environmental education has perpetuated our habitual Human/Nature duality.  Recent Western Society depends on the belief that humanity is outside of Nature; that we have escaped Nature; that we can control and conquer Nature. This stubborn set of beliefs:

• inhibits accurate perceptions of the interdependence of the entire biosphere.

• creates a narrow perception of nature as a collection of resources important primarily as they relate to human needs.

• ignores the simple but all-important truth that humans are inseparably part of nature. (see Creating an Ecological Consciousness, below)

(3) Environmental Education Lacks Joy

Classroom environmental education tends to lack positive emotion. It lacks joy. Too much environmental education is problem-centered, and negative in tone and perception. Litter control is not Environmental Education

We must not ignore problems; but we do have to balance the negative focus with affirmation. There is much in our interconnectedness to affirm. The crucial point is to celebrate the wonder and awe and beauty of Earth.

(4) Just Say No?

Environmental education has tended to ignore the psychology of the instructional problem.

We teach too often by negative stricture, by moral precept, by saying "No, Don't do that." 

We ask kids to do the right thing, against their natural inclination. 
Don't beg for a ride to the mall--think of the energy waste! Don't, don't, don't. We point fingers, often far afield. "It's not Us. It's them!"

There is a place for moral exhortation, but by itself it is not nearly sufficient.

Moral precept does not change behavior. This problem is addressed (see below) by developing an ecological consciousness.

(5) How to Kill Hope

We tend to ignore the effect on essentially powerless children of stressing ecological catastrophe. The developmental effect is to increase children's sense of helplessness and hopelessness, already a huge problem in American schools. Nothing can change without hope. Despair paralyzes us.

•  There is a foolish but growing notion in American society that it's already too late, that not enough is left of Nature; that the environment is doomed already, anyway. A self-defeating and self-perpetuating sense of hopelessness results.

• A sense of powerlessness can be a wonderfully lazy out; it is an easy excuse for inaction--one that our whole society at times finds attractive.

Why isn't environmental education making much difference? There are many answers; several of which involve blaming. But instead of focusing on blame, let's move on to what works, to what I think we want:

What Should Effective
Environmental Education Look Like?

Seven Educational Prescriptions

To be effective, environmental education:

1. Should use two root strategies: it should inform the mind and personally engage the heart. If both strategies are used, changed perceptions and behavior are possible. If either is used alone, change is less likely. 
2. Should emphasize the great motivators: curiosity, discovery, wonder, celebration, self-expression, and hands-on experience;

3. Should impart the knowledge that humans are part of nature, not something separable from Earth.

4. Should create personal, positive emotional connections between students and the rest of nature.

5. Should become effective for a large majority of children. In other words, it should be accessible to urban children, who are currently very underserved. This is a complex challenge.

6. Should provide assessment means by which students demonstrate their grasp of principles by performing.

7. Should use interdisciplinary methods to efficiently engage the whole child and all kinds of intelligences in learning. Living systems are the original interdisciplinary model.

Find Ways To Say Yes!

Finding ways to legitimately say Yes! is at the heart of effective environmental education.
We must ask kids to act positively, with their inclinations.

The idea of an affirmative approach is not to exclude what kids do know--that there are serious and enormous problems--but to empower them. We can do that, not by pretending that they can while children solve these problems, but by helping them perceive and celebrate their place in the web of life.

Ecological Literacy

A recent benefit of the Deep Ecology movement is that some holistic thinkers are advocating ecological literacy as a primary goal of education in general.

To paraphrase Fritjof Capra in The Web of Life, the argument goes like this:

1)We must learn to build and nurture sustainable communities. 

2)We can do this if we reconnect with the web of life.

3) We must learn lessons from ecosystems (natural communities), which are sustainable communities.

4) To understand these lessons we must understand the basic principles of ecology.

5) "We need to become...ecologically literate."

6) Being ecoliterate means understanding the principles of organization of ecological communities (ecosystems) and applying those principles to the problem of sustainable human communities.

My personal take on ecological literacy, however, proceeds somewhat less grandly from my empirical experience as an educator for thirty-five years. At the heart of curriculum, I think, should be a few basic questions:

• Who are we?
• Where did we come from?
• What should we do?

These are questions fundamental to human life, of course, and happily, perceiving ourselves in terms of the principles of ecology takes us a long way toward answering them.

Creating An Ecological Consciousness

This... emphasis on our "capacity to identify with the larger collective of all beings" is essential to our survival...precisely because it can serve in lieu of morality and because moralizing is ineffective.

Sermons seldom hinder us from pursuing our self-interest, so we need to be a little more enlightened about what our self-interest is.

It would not occur to me, for example, to exhort you to refrain from cutting off your leg. That wouldn't occur to me or to you, because your leg is part of you.

Well, so are the trees in the Amazon Basin; they are our external lungs. We are just beginning to wake up to that. 

We are gradually discovering that we are our world.

                                                       --Joanna Macy

The sense of connection and interdependence with all life, the experienced awareness that we are literally all part of Earth--an Ecological Consciousness--can be fostered by taking advantage of the human drive to become part of something larger than the self.

We humans all seem to oscillate between two ends of a pendulum's arc. One pole is Self-Assertion (our society's deep nature), the other pole is Self-Transcendence (our species' deep nature), our ability to go beyond the self in transpersonal process. For a simple example, think of a moment you have had when singing with others when all the voices melded into one. Or think of a moment playing a team sport, when the whole team became a single flow. When we transcend the personal self, we perceive ourselves as embedded in a larger Self---the choir, the team, earth's household. The more we affiliate with the Living Biosphere the larger we become.

We have a natural intuition that we are part of an enormous, all embracing whole, that we are leaves on the great tree of life, not just isolated autonomous individuals. We are programmed to belong, and we wish to belong. (see Arthur Koestler, Janus, 1978)

What the science of ecology has taught us is what we "knew" all along--that all is interdependent, that the characteristic relationships among life forms on earth is interdependence which is usually mutually advantageous.  What all the ancient religions intuited to be true, we now, millennia later, "know" in our rational Western way to be factual.

When people become aware of their own deep connections to the rest of life, it helps them feel whole. This sense of self-wholeness or self-integration is hard to find here and now--our lives and selves feel increasingly fragmented. Our need and our problem are both suggested by the idiom, "I've got to get it together." Moments in which we feel coherent and "together" (that is, whole) are precious and joyful to us, and have an enormous effect on our sense of well-being. Such experiences have a place in schools.

For more on this topic, go to Intro. to Deep Ecology.

The Instructional Need

Above I asked, What experiences of the earth can we create that will result in love?
The instructional need in environmental education is to discover ways to let kids experience and verify their personal connectedness with the other beings and entities of Earth.

The instructional need is always to create learning contexts in which kids feel the possibility of becoming whole, of "getting it together." And it won't hurt if they experience joy in the process.

Two Paths Toward Wholeness

Let me be personal for a moment. I wish for wholeness or self-integration as much as anyone. I am fortunate: I find such wholeness in two ways in my life, and both bear on the subjects of this essay.

• The Path Of Creation:
I am a poet, and like many artists, I feel most complete right after I have created, right after I've made a poem. Somehow, creative process is able to utilize and draw to gether the dissociated parts of self and make them for a time, whole. Through creating I can give the speechless parts of my self the power of expression, and that helps makes me whole.

• The Path Of Wakeful Attention:
My second realization of wholeness is when I experience my connectedness with and participation in the Biosphere. I learned to do this early; I was blessed with a childhood spent largely in the northern Minnesota forest, where I spent much time alone as well as with others. I was informally but intimately aware of many aspects of nature from early childhood. It never occurred to me that humans were or could be separate from nature until I came to a city and university.

As I write, looking at winter out my window.I just now saw several chickadees bounce from branch to branch in the red osier dogwood, black and white birds on burgundy bark against snow. And I knew I was part of that richness, that my body was made of the same atoms as the chickadees, and of the dogwood, the same atoms that life-forms have been lifting from earth and assembling and lying down and re-assembling in new forms for billions of years. This joy makes me whole.

This urge towards wholeness, this hope-filled knowledge of belonging, is a motivational power we can depend on.
The question is: What experiences can we give people that will help people transcend the self and become eco-conscious? (To explore these ideas further, go to Learning Activities.)

Self  Expressing  Earth (SEE)

Self Expressing Earth (SEE) was my program at the Center for Global Environmental Education at Hamline University. Begun in 1994, The goal of SEE was to foster environmental education through the process of making art in several art forms. Originally a residency program at COMPAS, at Hamline SEE was reinvented as a Web-based Distance-Learning Program. Schools subscribed, SEE provided extensive teaching materials (LINK) and online interactive discussion with myself and guest artist-nauralists.

 SEE also began a series of enormously successful summer workshops for teaching artists, naturalists, and classroom teachers. These workshops were week-long immersions in both arts and ecology, taught in residential environmental education camps in the forests of Minnesota. The Workshops drew teachers and artists from as far as Yorkshire, England and Beijing, China.

 SEE was a success, especially in California, but we gradually realized that such a program would not support itself by subscriptions. The SEE website became essentially a teacher-resource site, and SEE became dormant in 2000.

Morning Earth

Beginning in 1998, a SEE subscription included a daily poem celebrating a gift from Earth, which I wrote each morning and emailed to subscribers. For me, this became a practice, and a daily devotion. When SEE went dormant, my Earth Journal continued. I mailed to a gradually growing list of teachers, friends, acquaintances and increasingly, to strangers who had heard of my list. Newspaper and magazine articles began to bring more subscribers to this free list, which reached about six hundred subscribers as Morning Earth began.

Morning Earth continues SEE's base in education, but now we recognize that the daily poems themselves are the primary experiential learning mode. Many other Teacher Resources are available onsite.

Above, I described my two paths towards wholeness as Creation and Wakeful Attention.

What delights me is that when we use artistic self-expression to teach EE , both of my paths to wholeness become available to students.

Morning Earth 's process is to nurture and celebrate kids' positive connections to Earth through expressive art-making.

Morning Earth has four primary thrusts:

1) Help students create positive and personal affiliations
with Nature
2) Give students knowledge about how life on Earth works, thus help them become ecologically literate.
3) Develop students' skills in the arts of self-expression

4) Empower teachers to develop their own ecology-based art activities

The dominant ecological reality of Earth is wholeness, so a dominant concept of Morning Earth is Wholeness.

The learning of Wholeness, or Holism, should be a merging of concepts and personal experience. We must learn the interconnectedness of the world not only as theory, but as direct personal experience--not only the ecological processes of life's systems but the awe of connection and the lump beauty can put in the throat.

Environmental education has largely ignored some time-honored methods of creating powerful connections between knowledge and emotional conviction. The most central of those methods is the bond formed in the process of self-expression we call making art.

Making art is by nature celebratory.
For example, we are intuitively inclined to smile when we see most wild animals. This simple smile contains a million years of human response to nature. It is worth celebrating.
Showing kids how to say Yes! to that smile--in a drawing, a poem, a dance, a song--reinforces positive affiliation with nature, and making it personally expressive is likely to make the art itself powerful.

Only Western cultures sternly separate the expressive arts from daily life and from other ways of knowing (such as science).
Children across the world, though, intuitively recognize that artmaking belongs in everyday life and everyday thinking.

Self Expressing Earth, then, and Morning Earth, now, helps span the separation between scientific inquiry and artistic expression by incorporating the traits that these two great traditions of knowledge share:

• curiosity,
• a fascination with discovery,
• a delight in pattern and order,
• the impetus to ask "What if..." and proceed by experiment,
• an origin in Nature.

In addition, the arts have three motivating qualities which make them ideal for teaching and learning about Earth:

• a commitment to beauty, both in its reflection and creation, and to the joy it brings
• an intrinsic capacity to communicate to the whole person, heart and mind.
• a splendid ability to heal the human heart

What Needs to Be Learned?

What does a child need to know about Earth's life processes that will help that child to live responsibly and joyfully?

Here are six basic principles of ecology which are essential to our understanding of what life is, what earth is, and what we are:

• Life Materials Cycle; Life Lives in Circles
• Energy Flows from the Sun and Through Living Systems
• All Lives Transform
• All Lives Seek Balance
• All Lives Interlive
• We All Belong to One Community, the Biosphere: We All Depend on Each Other

Here are the six principles, briefly described :


Life lives in circles. The physical matter in the biosphere is Life-Materials:  oxygen, carbon, calcium, hydrogen--the stuff we are made of.  Life materials are shared by all organisms and used over and over again. Death is Earth's original re-cycling plan. Each death makes its materials available to newly living organisms. Our bodies are entirely recycled, 100% post-consumer content.


Life is powered by a flow of energy from the sun. Solar Energy is the driving force of all physical processes of life on earth.

• Solar light drives photosynthesis: green plants package sunlight as carbohydrates.
• Packaged sunlight transfers from life to life.
• Solar heating drives the water cycle, the winds, and the ocean currents.
• Life on Earth is a system of energy transfer.


Living systems are self-regulating. They regulate their internal conditions to achieve dynamic equilibrium or homeostasis with their environments. Inside and outside must fit.


Change is continuous everywhere. All life on earth was originally stardust that transformed. The forms of life co-evolve over long periods of time through Adaptation and Mutation. Communities evolve, not species in isolation. The forms of communities change over time through Succession. Every organism changes form during its lifetime.


Symbiosis is the basic pattern of life. Every animal, every plant has partners living with it that are necessary to its life. Interliving through time is Co-evolution; all lives evolve in response to one another. Natural communities evolve, not isolated species. All lives are embedded in a matrix of relationships that are mostly cooperative. Each partner in Interliving derives benefit--typically partners utilize each others' by-products.


The Biosphere is the Membrane of Life and its Products which Envelops Earth. The Biosphere is place, process, and community. The more kinds of lives in a community, the healthier and stronger it is. This is Biodiversity.

Examples of Children's Poems
Which Illustrate the  Principles

Having named these six central life-processes, I will now connect these concepts to a few examples of children's artistic self-expression. These works and descriptions of classroom art-making were all the result of residencies of mine which focused on environmental education.

The Six Principles are, again:

1. Life-materials cycle and re-cycle.
2. Energy flows from the sun.
3 All lives transform; Being is Becoming.
4 All lives seek balance
5. All lives interlive
6. We all belong to the Biosphere

Here is a poem that illustrates both 2)Energy Flow and 6) Community:

A seed dances into a trunk,
A trunk dances into a branch,
A branch dances into a twig,
A twig dances into a leaf,
A leaf dances into light,
The light dances all over Me!
Can't you see?
 The tree is growing
 Just like Me! 

     --Trameisha Greer, gr 5

Below is a poem that clearly demonstrates its author's understanding of humanity's true relation to earth, and illustrates Principles of 1) Cycling, 5) Interliving, and 6) Community:
My blood makes a circle
Through my heart. 

Earth makes a circle.
We, of Earth, are one part.

--Tom Johnson, age 7

Here is a poem which illustrates 3) Transformation and also communicates the author's joy in her 6) Communion with the dolphins:


I strolled.
an occasional sea spray,

powdery white sand mingled with wind & water,
I became one with the scape,
danced on the line between surf and sand.

Further out I skipped,
glints off the water, a stirring inside me,
I leapt, let go of my self.

Up with me rose the silvery creatures,
the harmony of surf & wind joined with my spirit,
two dolphins dancing with me,

all colors and feelings released, effervescence--
A wave rolled,
closed in and washed me over, made my skin glitter.

The dolphins dove.
I watched.

They took part of me and left parts of themselves.

      --Dee Dee Budde, age 14

The following myth-poem illustrates 3) Transformation and 5) Interliving. It was written after the student had researched a favorite predator, and shows his grasp of predator/prey relationships. It also shows him actually Transforming imaginatively into the Other:


Before I came
deer were fat and lazy,
Before I came
the mountains were tall and lonely,
Before I came
caves were dark and damp.
When I came
I was rolling in the mountain sand.
I awoke
seeing the tall lonely mountains
and the damp cave beside me
and the lazy deer by the river.
And I was surprised,
I knew
I could change all that,
I knew my name:

--Darrick Haugan, age 10

Rainsong, below, illustrates both 1) Cycling and 3) Transformation.  My delight in this poem increased when I asked its author the name of the secret elevator. Without missing a beat she said, "Evaporation."


Raindrops are singing with clouds,
And when there are too many singers,
they all break away and start to fall.
Now, raindrops are singing on children's tongues,
singing on lakes, on rivers, on oceans,
on roof tops, on cars, on umbrellas,
on tree tops, on plants, on little tiny shoulders,
heads, on every little blade of grass.
Finally, when all of the singers have fallen,
they all dry up. The raindrops go back up
in a secret elevator, and sing with the clouds again.

                                  --Caitlin Dougherty, age 11

This next poem illustrates 4) Balance, 5) Interliving, and 6) Community:

If You Understand Nature 

The deer will eat from your hand.
The sun makes the plants,
Animals eat the plants,
The humans eat the animals,
and Earth needs the humans to take care of it.
So you see, as you stare
into the endless sky,
we live from our Mother Earth's birth,
and if you understand,
The deer will eat from your hand.
And we all, plants, animals, humans,
are children of the Earth. 

--Maria Domeier, age 11

For More Poems by kids go here.

Using the Other Expressive Arts
To Teach the Six Principles

I do not suggest that poetry is the only or the best art form that can be used to teach EE. Any expressive art-form can be used for every principle:

Drawing, sketching and painting can all be used. Observation and learning how to see are at the heart of both scientific inquiry and visual arts. Both require both Noticing and Noting.

• For example, student drawings (both representational and interpretive) can make up field guides to school nature areas, playgrounds, or even sidewalk cracks and vacant lots.
• Sculpture and Assemblage can be used to demonstrate concepts through displays and exhibits.
• Dance and movement are powerful enablers for many lifescience concepts. For example, picture small kids dancing seeds germinating and growing, reaching for sunlight (Energy Flow, Transformation)

• Transformations can be efficiently learned by discovering them with your body in creative movement. For example

• Dance a snowflake melting.
• Dance a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis.
• Dance the aging of a human being.

• Creative Dramatics and Theater can be used similarly to Dance: Energy Flow can be memorably learned by acting out Photosynthesis (plant respiration). Here's one way I can see it happening:

pairs and trios of kids play

• carbon dioxide molecules (3 kids)
• oxygen molecules (2 kids)
• water molecules (3 kids)
• photons (1 kid, several)
• chlorophyll molecules (1 kid, several)

Players wear identifying signs.

• Inside the leaf (or stage area) the chlorophyll molecules eat the photons, disassemble water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen (new signs appear),
• then "grab" the carbon dioxide molecules and disassemble them into carbon and oxygen.
• then the chlorophyll molecules put carbon and hydrogen and a little oxygen together to make a carbohydrate, a simple sugar, and then release the "leftover" oxygen molecules, which leave the leaf.

This scenario could easily be extended into animals' breathing in the oxygen, with the stage being an animal's lungs and students similarly playing red blood cells. 

Food Chains and Food Webs describe the basic processes of transferring energy from life to life.

• Small groups create scenarios of eating and energy transfer in their local ecosystems, and act them out. Costumes and/or simple props can add greatly to the power. This is also an excellent path into basic strategies for gaining energy, such as grazing and predation.

Theater is always an excellent vehicle for teaching Transformations, for all theater depends upon temporary transformations of both the actors and their audience:
• Any sketch in which something turns into some thing else--for instance, 
• any animal fable told through puppets,
• any game where participants become animals, or even
• any play where kids become adults.

Music is a wonderful way to explore Rhythm, which is a feature of all living systems.

• Discovering periodicities and rhythms in life-forms (including our own) and playing them on instruments is a powerful way to teach Balance and Cycling
• Collect sounds and rhythms in nature, or town, make "sound maps", and convert them into notation/musical scores and play and sing them in groups. (Community and Balance)

I am not suggesting that these ecology principles are best taught solely through artistic
self-expression. Usually, some information must be acquired another way--by direct experience of nature, whenever possible.

The crucial link that self-expression supplies is the personal emotional investment students make in the concepts they are exploring. Making art engages students' whole selves with the concept and with the process, which makes their learning efficient and more easily retained.

Any expressive art may be used to teach the principles of ecology.

The list of possibilities above is nowhere near exhaustive, but exemplify only a few activities I have taught myself or watched another artist teach. Go here for Learning Activities.

Since I have suggested solutions for some pages now, forgive me if I  close by describing a large obstacle to ecological education.

Parts versus Wholes; Form versus Essence

Ecological consciousness requires perceiving wholes. It requires holism. Holism is an approach to reality that requires a willingness to see wholes first and parts second. It requires an appreciation of context that analytic method does not. It requires a relational view of reality. It requires a willingness to see systems.

Our cultural habit for a long time has been to approach reality mechanically, as something to take apart, or reduce to its smallest components. We analyze, we analyze, but only rarely do we synthesize (put it back together). Once we dissect the animal on the table, we can't seem to make it live again. The impulse to take things apart, the reductionist approach to reality, is notorious for failing to recognize that the relationship among a thing's parts is itself a part, a part central to the whole. Thus, in the reductionist world, there is and will be no synergy.

Rather than beginning with the urge to express and the communicative power that brings, we commonly begin art instruction with techniques and forms. Stay within the lines. Imitate what's been done.This is backward.

Rather than begin biology instruction with life, we too often begin by cutting a dead earthworm or frog to pieces. This is backward.

This superimposition of form over essence can make schools lifeless. It is deadening and deadly. Joy is what dies.

We have a natural human urge toward what transcends the personal. See deep ecology.

People own this naive, accurate, knowledge that synergy is real, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

When we reduce our world and our selves into disconnected parts, our urge to join up, our pollinating hopeful reaching out beyond the self becomes debased, deflowered, made only short-term functional. It is reduced to the theoretical and cognitive rather than opening to the heart-felt and lived-by. 

This reduction of essence by the demands of form is a kind of theft.

It is this misappropriation of the possibility of joy that can steal the spirit from children.


The power and promise of using the arts to teach environmental education is that making art pushes you toward essence.

The arts are more difficult to co-opt than the traditional subject packages. The process of making art makes it very difficult to deny the personal connections between the subject and the self.

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