Building Empathy in Local Green Spaces

From September to June in the school year of 2017-2018, our students had been feeling unsettled and unaware about local green spaces because there is a culture shift of playtime is done in doors. Although Toni and I were teaching different grades, we decided to collaborate because we work well together and our students age ranges supplement well and have the ability to build empathy and school culture in our building and beyond.

Students seemed to be especially unaware of local green spaces and as teachers, we wanted to alleviate the discomfort of ecophobia (fear of place) with ecophilia (love of nature) by supporting a child’s natural inquisitiveness to explore the natural world. We hoped to change this perceived disconnect by exposing our young learners to the natural world around them through weekly exposure to these community green spaces. We spent a total of 11 weeks on our local green space project and at the end of those weeks, students were comfortable with the local parks and greenspaces and have build empathy and have demonstrated this through projects and presentations with our time together. We were inspired to continue this project after reading about David Sobel through his lense of place-based learning.

David Sobel’s pedagogy of place-based learning aligned with what we wanted to learn and explore as teacher/ researchers with our students. If we want children to flourish, Sobel argues, “we need to give them time to connect with nature and the Earth before we can ask them to save it”. He proposes that there are healthy ways to foster environmentally aware, empowered students such as exposing kids to place and connecting classrooms to communities.

We allowed students time to bond with the natural world and to bring community perspectives into our local environments before we can change the culture or area these places are in. For example, many students recognized the need for wheelchair accessibility within our parks are limited and we needed to find ways for all people to be available to enjoy these green spaces.

For 11 weeks, we provided consistent weekly opportunities for our students to explore their their community and green spaces with a more flexible schedule than they were used to with a rigid typical school timetable. We made time for nature and community explorations every Friday morning and did not confine ourselves to a standard 50-minute block but rather the whole morning if needed.

Each week, students mapped out green spaces within our community. The aim was to see a new green space every week for 6 weeks, then returning to those green spaces and reflecting about these within Trail, BC around the rural school community. We were reflecting on aspects such as, who is using these green spaces?

Our focus was on all demographics such as age, disabilities, wildlife and possibilities to make these green spaces more accessible to the entire community. All green spaces were within walking distance of our school. These areas included parks, school grounds, empty green fields and old playgrounds that are designated green spaces and have street/path access within the rural subdivision.

We observed over the 11-week project how the relaxed timetable of our outdoor explorations helped our students develop many valuable lifelong skills and provided the freedom to explore their place much more deeply. Throughout the 11 weeks, we discovered six green spaces in our community. Although there are six green spaces within one kilometer of the school, many students were not aware of them. From increased littering to a decrease in daily physical activity, we saw rationale for the project in many places.

Our focus was how can teacher / student collaboration promote the development of student knowledge about community green spaces? Despite the challenges of a place-based learning pedagogy we felt like pioneers of place-based inquiry learning. We were inspired to continue to grow from our experiences and forge forward. In the Laura Richardson article Handbook of Qualitative Research.

She used the metaphor of the Seattle “Gum Wall“ as a way of showing how we can add to previous thinkers and theorists research. We are not the first to come with place-based inquiry but we are pioneers in this field and we are adding to this way of thinking and teaching. Someone had to be the first to put a piece of gum on the wall and then a snowball effect happened and more and more people added to it until the wall was covered. We are trying to put our small piece of gum (research) on the wall to add to and support this research and encourage other educators to take the leap and try it.

We are confident they too will see its many benefits for all of their varied learners and levels. The empathy starts within the kids and we use teachable moments or stop moments to bring the group together and focus with the empathy lense. For example, many of the green spaces we went to were not suited for all people, especially people with physical disabilities. Once one of the kids mentioned this, it allowed us to bring everyone together and discuss why this wasn’t looked at before.

We thought about what metaphor explained our journey and its highs and lows. We both have had the opportunity to travel and our project felt much like when you travel to a new and unfamiliar location. Much like traveling and exploring a new destination our place-based project mirrored this sentiment. At first you feel unsettled and anxious due to not knowing your surroundings. You are excited but unsure if you are going in the right direction. You will take many unexpected wrong turns and end up in a different place than what you imagined.

We have learned about the power of place-based inquiry for our learners, we have seen the positive effects of collaboration for ourselves and our students. We will continue to learn and grow from each other and promote by example the many benefits of place-based learning in our everyday process. As Leggo (2012) states “I am learning to attend to the inner life.” As educators, we need to listen to our spirits, our hearts, our imaginations, our bodies, our minds.

We will listen to our hearts and not let criticism deter us from constantly trying new things and evolving our practice and the way in which we interact with each other as colleagues and with our students. Once you know, there really is no way of going back and unknowing the truth. We learned that although our primary focus began as an exploration into a place-based inquiry, in the end, it became a self-discovery of ourselves and our teaching practices. We will continue to explore new places and place our gum on the wall.

Our learning is shared here in this virtual reality space. You will need an app (free) called CoSpaces and it would be beneficial if you had VR goggles to put your phone into it.

To tie the project together and give others an experience of our journey, the students created a virtual reality tour of all the parks and places we went. This allows others in the school or greater community to see our experiences over many months.  This allowed students to bring place-based inquiry into a digital world and meshing those two together brought a new level of engagement for the students. It allowed them to take their knowledge of the outdoors and extend it into the classroom with block based coding, photography and most of all, collaboration and teamwork amongst the students.

As teachers, it was astonishing to be the facilitator in the classroom and not the dictator. Rather standing and learning beside the students instead of standing in front of them. As educators, this allowed us to reflect on our practice and grow as individuals and remove us from our comfort zones. When teachers ask students to make mistakes and learn from them, we need to be ready to lead by example.

this article is part of the Ottiya Empathy Issue. Order a print copy here.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Nature and Environment, Teens

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