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Concerns About Safety as a Challenge to Environmental Education

Kelsey's picture

When I was in sixth grade, the summer camp I attended annually stopped letting us climb the rocks.  I had always loved clambering up the boulders, feeling carefully for stable hand and foot holds; slower than many of my peers, who scrambled up without worry of falling, but always victorious when I finally stood twenty feet above the ground and gazed out over the nearby world.  But for reasons I don’t remember—perhaps a camper hurt themself, perhaps there was just concern that a camper would—one summer the counselors told us that we couldn’t climb the boulders anymore, at least not without strict adult supervision.  We still climbed occasionally after that, always with several adults stationed nearby, but it never felt the same to me.  Perhaps we were safer then, but we were also less free.

            This personal experience illustrates a challenge in environmental education today—keeping children safe versus giving them the freedom to explore their environments.  Many environmental education scholars have written about the importance of opportunities to explore nature in the development of children’s awareness of and investment in the environment.  In his book Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators, David Sobel argues, “... if we want children to become environmental stewards, then one of the best things we can do is let them play in natural settings.” (11)  As many studies Sobel cites have shown, access to the environment provides children the opportunity to develop a personal connection with nature, which makes them more likely to want to preserve it as they get older.  Access to nature isn’t only possible in rural settings, however; children growing up in urban settings can also have access to environments that facilitate similar growth of environmental awareness.  In the collection Urban Wildscapes, edited by Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan, various authors explore the ways in which urban wildscapes, or “urban spaces where natural as opposed to human agency appears to be shaping the land” (1), can be sites of children’s interaction with nature.  In chapter 4 of Urban Wildscapes, Tim Edensor et al. write, “wild spaces such as industrial ruins are importance spaces for play because of their material affordances and the absence of surveillance.” (72)  These sites can serve the same function in children’s environmental education as rural areas do: allowing children to explore and develop connections with their environments without adult restriction. 

            A major barrier that prevents children from accessing natural environments is adults’ concern for their safety.  As Sobel describes, albeit in a way that fails to acknowledge the valuable role of urban settings in children’s environmental education, “Even in rural and surburban settings where patches of woods and ponds are available, parents’ concerns about pollution and abduction make these places unavailable.” (11)  Katy Mugford, in chapter 5 of Urban Wildscapes, furthers the implications of this claim, writing, “Danger has to be understood and negotiated.  As Danny says: ‘Most of the really exciting things we do in our lives scare us to death.  They wouldn’t be exciting if they didn’t.” (95)  In The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It), Charles Saylan and Daniel T. Blumstein make a similar point when reflecting on their childhoods, writing, “Surviving in remote mountains isn’t necessarily consider a safe childhood endeavor these days, but doing it taught us self-reliance and the consequences of our actions or inactions.” (74)  These and other testimonies argue that, by preventing children access to nature in its myriad forms due to safety concerns, adults, even if unintentionally, are keeping children from developing connections with nature that will promote environmentally friendly behaviors in the future.

            In some ways, adults’ concern about children’s safety during unsupervised play in nature makes sense, because it is undeniable that nature poses dangers to all of us.  To give one example, children climbing boulders, as I used to do at summer camp, risk scraping themselves or breaking bones, not to mention the remote yet existent possibility of falling to their deaths.  Parents are likely to keep their children close and indoors because they love their children and don’t want to see them hurt; teachers and school administrators, in addition to caring about their students, risk being sued and/ or fired if anything happens to children on their watch.  However, if these individual concerns were all that motivated adults to keep children away from nature, it is likely that no children would have ever had access to the environment.  We know this isn’t true.  My parents have told me many stories of their adventures outdoors during childhood, of how they were allowed to roam free from supervision by their parents, told only to come home by dark.  Adults’ obsession with children’s safety seems to be a development of the past few decades, one that I hypothesize can be linked to larger social and economic changes occurring at the time. 

            The past few decades have seen the rise of neoliberalism, which is defined by scholar Loic Wacquant in his book Punishing the Poor as an “ideological project and government practice mandating submission to the “free market” and the celebration of “individual responsibility” in all realms, on one hand, and the deployment of punitive and proactive law-enforcement policies targeting... [those] trapped in the margins and cracks of the new economic and moral order coming into being under the conjoint empire of financialized capital and flexible wage labor, on the other hand.” (1)  Basically, prior to the 1970s and 1980s, many people were guaranteed stable long-term employment; however, as jobs have increasingly been sent overseas and fewer Western workers are required for the functioning of the capitalist economy, companies have increasingly offered only short-term, flexible wage labor, meaning that employees are not guaranteed good wages or permanent employment.  This rise in economic instability has been coupled with a rise in the punitive power of the government, as the government attempts to keep control in an era increasingly dominated by the “free market”, and as blaming marginalized populations for social insecurity by labeling them as criminals and then incarcerating them serves to keep the public from blaming their feelings of insecurity on free market policies.  In his book The Culture of Control, David Garland outlines several facets of this trend towards neoliberalism that has occurred in the past several decades, one of which being a fear of crime or overwhelming concern about safety.  He writes, “Since the 1970s fear of crime has come to have new salience.  What was once regarded as a localized, situational anxiety, afflicting the worst-off individuals and neighbourhoods, has come to be regarded as a major social problem and a characteristic of contemporary culture.” (10)  Wacquant similarly argues: “...the need for [the new governmental punitive policies under neoliberalism] is conveyed everywhere by an alarmist, even catastrophist discourse on “insecurity”...” (2)

            Although the connection between neoliberal discourse about insecurity and adults’ concerns for children’s safety when in nature may not be immediately apparent, I believe that they are fundamentally related.  First, much of adults’ fear about children playing outdoors can be attributed not to dangers posed by “natural” elements, but by fears of strangers and crimes they might commit.  Since rhetoric about the dangers of crime is fundamentally based upon defining the dangerous “other” as, among other things, poor and non-white, these fears may disproportionately impact children in neighborhoods with those demographics.  However, even in surburban, predominately middle class and white neighborhoods like the one I grew up in, fear of strangers and subsequent prevention of children playing outside unsupervised was fairly common. 

            But the impact of neoliberal rhetoric about fear and safety, in my opinion, goes beyond the direct perceived connection between the threat of crime and children’s safety outdoors.  Wacquant writes about the “constant confusion between insecurity and the “feeling of insecurity”” (3), and I believe that this confusion impacts every aspect of our lives, including our perceptions of the dangers nature poses to children who want to play outdoors.  We are constantly taught to be afraid—news stories about crimes and dangers and deaths, school lessons on being safe in every environment imaginable—to the point where it’s not always clear what we’re afraid of anymore.  We just know that we’re afraid of something.  So we try to protect ourselves in any way we can, we try to protect our children, and in the process we lose out on the potential for valuable environmental connection and the capitalist system gains a docile, fearful workforce, who is taught to believe that the free market is its only way to salvation.     

            So, understanding the ways in which concerns for children’s safety as a problem environmental education stem both from individual adults’ immediate concerns and the larger neoliberal discourse on insecurity, what can be done to increase children’s opportunities to interact unrestricted with nature?  A systemic social issue such as this requires, ultimately, a social solution—engaging individual actors in making different decisions may make a difference in the lives of individual children, but it will leave the rhetoric and structures of neoliberalism largely unchallenged.  Therefore, I believe that increasing children’s access to nature requires the dismantling of our neoliberal capitalist system.  This may seem too large-scale and overwhelming to be possible, but the fact is that neoliberalism is a development of the past few decades, created and implemented by humans acting as parts of social systems, and if we created neoliberalism then we have the ability to end it.  To start, politicians and media figures can shift the focus of their rhetoric away from emphasizing insecurity, of emphasizing the dangers of crime and other issues; such a fixation only serves to make people afraid of the world around them.  Governments can enact regulations to curb the free market and restore stability in the lives of their citizens—raising the minimum wage, enacting a single-payer health care system, and improving unemployment benefits are just a few of the many ways in which the government could decrease the feelings and lived experiences of insecurity faced by so many people.  While these proposed changes wouldn’t end neoliberal capitalism—I believe that a revolution may be necessary to overthrow our exploitative capitalist system—they would be a start to ensuring that people’s lives both feel and are more secure.  If people are less afraid of the world around them, I believe they will be less likely to prevent their children from interacting with nature on account of concerns for their safety.

            However, even though these large-scale changes are important, I also think that educators and educational institutions can play a valuable role in giving children the opportunity to interact with nature.  While individual teachers and schools are limited in what they can do by the constraints set upon them by other institutions—government-instituted testing requirements, for example, limit the amount of time teachers and schools can spend on non-test related teaching—teachers and schools can still give children valuable opportunities to explore their environments.  One way of doing this is giving children the opportunity to play outside during recess—recess time shouldn’t be taken away as punishment or because it’s seen as superfluous, because it’s one of the only times throughout the school day that children can explore nature freely.  Teachers, whenever possible, should also try to take children to explore the local environments around them, in hopes of fostering students’ feelings of connection to their home environments.

            Parents, in many ways, have more opportunities to promote interaction with nature than teachers do, because they have more legal freedom in how they interact with their children than teachers do their students.  Therefore, parents should both allow their children opportunities to play outside, unsupervised, in their local environments and, whenever possible (although this possibility is of course highly class dependent), take their children to different environments and give them the chance to explore.  While parents are of course concerned about the safety of their children, they should not allow those concerns to keep their children indoors and unconnected from the world around them.

            Solutions to the concern about safety in children’s environmental education ultimately must come in two forms—the short-term individual initiatives by parents, teachers, and schools to give children the opportunity for environmental exploration, and a long-term dismantling of our neoliberal capitalist system that relies on feelings of fear and insecurity to maintain a capitalist workforce.  Through these initiatives, hopefully we will be able to create a world where all children, regardless of where they grow up, are given the opportunity to explore the wildscapes around them and develop long-lasting connections with the environment.      

Works Cited (Outside of Class Readings)

Garland, David. The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.

Wacquant, Loic. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.


sara.gladwin's picture

homes as safety and the perpetuation of fear

Your essay recalled to my mind a lot of conversations I’ve had about Daddy Long Legs and fear (see the comments here as an example). Just as a brief summary of the Daddy Long Legs Questioning:

I participated in a course taught by Anne Dalke called the Ecological Imagination in the fall of 2012. We sat outside everyday, and faced various “distractions”- the biggest of them being the bug “problem.” It became very normal for a student to suddenly jerk around in the midst of class, as at one point or another, you’d find yourself facing some bug or insect and attempting very violently to rid yourself of the “problem.” The biggest of these was the Daddy Long Legs that liked to hang out on the English House Chairs (though admittedly, the most harmless of insects). Many of us in the class were terrified of the Daddy Long Legs. One student, who had taught at a outdoor summer camp, was entirely perplexed by the apparent fear that plagued us each class. We came to class one day to find that she had brought a small Tupperware container, captured the Daddy Long Legs, and requested that we pass it around the circle, and attempt to touch/hold the Daddy Long Legs. We weren’t all able to make this venture (I wasn’t), but it did lead us into interrogating why this fear was such a pervasive and seemingly instinctual reaction.


One conclusion we ended up drawing that I find particularly relevant to conversations we’ve had in our 360 was that “home” was actually part of the problem. Home- in the materialistic sense, a safe shelter, a place actually built on the premise of excluding nature. We set traps for mice, dust away the cobwebs of spiders, and exterminate the bugs. We tear away the ivy that inches up the walls of dorms at Bryn Mawr because ultimately; it squeezes the life out of the buildings. The “homes” that have been built for us, and maintained by us, seem to exist not just contrary to nature, but in resistance to nature.  Expelling the “other” is wrapped up into the creation of a home. It would seem that the more we build up “safe” homes, the more fearful we feel that we need to be towards everything outside that home.


This is also making me think further about our desire to create a safe space for the story slam and what elements of risk we may removing from sharing  one’s story…

jccohen's picture

climbing rocks, challenging systems


Your move here from the personal (boulder-climbing) to the global (neoliberalism) via the increasing prevalence of “common sense” assumptions about safety is a powerful and disturbing reminder of how implicated our most individual-feeling ideas and decisions can be…


Your opening with personal experience followed by claims that take in rural and suburban as well as urban settings sets us up to consider the tension between safety and environmental exploration and education. And as you argue, “by preventing children access to nature in its myriad forms due to safety concerns, adults, even if unintentionally, are keeping children from developing connections with nature that will promote environmentally friendly behaviors in the future.”  So in a sense we are trading in long-term global safety for immediate, individual risk reduction… 


Of course at this point you move us into linkages between “safety” and neoliberal capitalist priorities and discourses.  Waquant’s naming of the “constant confusion between insecurity and the “feeling of insecurity”” is especially helpful, I think, in creating a crack through to understand and impact this issue of perceived safey/risk.  And this takes me back to the claim in Mugford:  “Danger has to be understood and negotiated.”  While Mugford isn’t contextualizing this in terms of neoliberal discourse on crime/safety/security, her admonition relates for me because it too demands that we get outside the way “danger” is framed and take a more critical and agential stance in relation to it; perhaps this provides a way to think about the smaller scale question of (environmental) education that resonates with the larger scale shifts in policies