Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Reframing Environmental Education

Lisa Marie's picture

             Environmental education is an effort to teach how natural environments function and the ways people can change their habits and behavior in order to live more sustainably. This form of education aims to foster more ecological intelligence, environmental consciousness, and more caring of the earth. One issue with environmental education, though, is that it often calls for “providing more positive opportunities for contact with nature among children and adults as an integral part of everyday life” (159). By limiting the scope to connecting students to “nature” or to wildscapes free from pollution, skyscrapers, and waste, students from cities who lack access to these outdoor spaces are inhibited from getting the “environmental education” experience. There is a bias in environmental education toward natural, pristine spaces, when in actuality students should be learning about their own communities; the environments they live in, breathe in, and attend school in. This issue of access to untouched outdoor spaces is especially the case in Washington D.C. where certain neighborhoods have disproportionately high rates of pollution compared with other parts of the city. Students who do not have access to “nature” as well as those who live in communities that deal with environmental racism, should learn more about their natural surroundings as well as means of action they can take to address environmental racism.

            In Children and Their Urban Environment, Claire Freeman and Paul Tratner argue that “play spaces are becoming increasingly denatured” and that there is a need to “ensure that there are places where children can experience wildness”. The authors elaborate on this need, citing the many benefits provided by spending time in nature, particularly that “contact with nature is necessary for our well-being… and is an essential part of what makes us human” (164).  While “contact with nature is shown to have positive emotional and physical benefits” and is certainly important, it should not be at the expense of students not gaining an understanding of their own environment. It is critical that students are able to study the way they interact with their own environments, including how they benefit from their surroundings, as well as how they might be harmful.

            I first noticed distinctions between urban spaces across the city of Washington D.C. when I worked as an intern for the DC Public Schools this summer. There seemed to be major disparities between schools located in the northwest and those located in the northeast and southeast in terms of the physical facilities and the natural or unnatural aesthetics of the area surrounding the schools. The differences were especially notable between schools on either side of the Anacostia River, which splits the north from the southern part of D.C. Washington is split up into eight wards, with wards 2, 7, and 8, located in the south, being the most polluted. Wards 7 and 8 are home to the most African-Americans in the city and are two of the three most polluted wards (McDonald 1). Illegal dumping tends to occur the most in the northeast and southeast areas (Wards 2, 6, 7, 8). The Anacostia River is more likely to have toxic chemicals than the Potomac River or Rock Creek Park. “A child in Anacostia can be exposed to multiple sources of pollution through: eating PCB-contaminated fish, breathing fumes from power plants, auto exhausts from commuter vehicles along neighborhood highways, eating lead paint chips, drinking lead contaminated water, playing in lead-contaminated dirt, living next to abandoned mass-burn incinerator ash, and being surrounded by potential superfund sites” (McDonald 1).

            Students who go to school in Wards 2, 6, 7, and 8 are not likely to have access to pristine outdoor spaces, and may have a difficult time finding a way to integrate time in “nature” into their daily lives. Furthermore, with high pollution rates and hazardous waste areas located in these wards, is it even safe for them to be spending a lot of time outdoors in their surroundings? In terms of implementing an environmental education curriculum in a school in this area, lessons should be centered on the following questions: how do the students interact with their own environments? How do they benefit from the spaces in which they live in? What/where is their “ditch”? How would they characterize their environments?  How would they describe ‘home’? If there are problems of pollution and waste in these environments, how would they go about changing it?  Thousands of people have live in the more polluted parts of the city and while it is not pristine or deemed to be one of the ‘better’ natural environments, many call it home. Students should learn more about the history of where they live—a story that directly impacts them on a daily basis. They should learn about why pollution and toxic waste sites may be disproportionately located in certain parts of the city—and what they can do about it. Through this kind of “reflection and action upon the world” students and communities may be able to “transform it” (Lapayese 169). 

            In this reframing of the traditional environmental education curriculum, there needs to be a new paradigm that encourages the students to challenge the “industry to change its process to eliminate, rather than merely control pollution; and one that forces industry to prove that chemicals are safe before they are employed, rather than using communities as live testing laboratories for the effects of toxic chemicals” (Cole 281).  Sadly, there is a history of structural racism and structural pollution—not just in Washington D.C, but in many parts of this nation.  Students should be inspired to question, challenge, critique, and value their environments, but, when studying pollution, they should not think about where waste could go instead of in their neighborhoods, but how industries can eliminate the waste it produces entirely. Additionally, an interesting and convenient characteristic of this kind of curriculum is that it could be taught in an environmental studies class, but it could also be incorporated into a Civics, Social Studies, History, or Science course.

            Tratner and Freeman argue “if a child’s only experience of a river is the river in a degraded state with no fish or birds, then its degraded state become the only experience children have of that river, and they will not expect to see fish and birds” (163). Whether or not a child or student lives in a “degraded state” of place, they should be learning about their surrounding environment. If their surrounding environment is in a “degraded state” they should be learning about the different mechanisms and forces that cause it to be in the shape it is. Observing and questioning the surrounding environment are key to getting a true environmental education. Asking these questions and noticing their surroundings will give them a “formative” experience and help shape their interactions with their environment. We cannot dismiss a person’s home environment simply because it is not deemed to be “nature”.

            Reframing environmental education is critical in fostering more ecological literacy across different communities. Not every person has the capability of integrating time in “nature” into his or her everyday routine. Because many people lack access to these untouched outdoor spaces, environmental education needs to focus on teaching students about the environment they live in and go to school in. How do they interact with their environment? How do their surroundings help them grow? How are their surroundings harmful? How do we as a class, school, community, nation, and world go about addressing the complicated issues of the lack of access to ‘nature’ and environmental racism? How can individuals change the way in which they interact with their environment to be more sustainable? These are all key questions that a redesigned environmental education curriculum would ask and go about answering. This new way of teaching the environment would also re-evaluate what we as a society deem to be “nature”, taking the time to consider the benefits that urban and green spaces in cities can offer people.

 McDonald, N. (2000). Our Unfair Share III: Race & Environment in Washington, D. Our Unfair Share III: Race & Environment in Washington, D. Retrieved from


sara.gladwin's picture

transforming environments

Hi Lisa! I really liked how you pulled together our readings with a concrete, real life situation, which can be incredibly valuable when reading and thinking through educational theory. I think one place that you could take this paper next would be to think about ways students could take the knowledge they might gain from learning about their environments and turn it into some form of action. One consistent claim of your paper (and one that I would agree with) is that education that centers on student’s urban “non-natural” spaces is a crucial component of environmental education. I would push you to articulate a little further what students would then be able to do with that knowledge and specific ways in which they may be able to “transform it.”


I also liked that you noted specific types of classes that environmental education could be filtered through, and with your mentioned of structural/environmental racism that comes into play with issues of pollution, I was thinking that another way of teaching ecological literacy would also be through classes that speak to the intersections between the environment and racism.

jccohen's picture

"home" and "nature"

Lisa Marie,

You open with this sentence:  “Environmental education is an effort to teach how natural environments function and the ways people can change their habits and behavior in order to live more sustainably.”  This does feel like a fairly standard definition of environmental ed, and I’m curious where it’s coming from: our readings?  You more general sense of what’s out there?  This is relevant because I think that in the course of the paragraph you’re also calling for a redefinition that is more inclusive, more geared to urban people and also to environmental justice.  Why not shape the paragraph to make this point of redefining more central and powerful?  And related to this, you argue with Freeman and Trantner that contact with “nature” shouldn’t be at the expense of children getting to know their own “environment.”  Again, this raises an important definitional question:  what counts as “nature,” particularly in cities?  Is the Anacostia still “nature”? 


Your focus on conditions in Washington, D.C. gives this paper specificity and depth.  Lapayese provides a valuable framework here, and the way you also bring in Sobel’s idea of the “ditch” offers a glimpse of how we might integrate the environmental ed ideas of someone like Sobel with the very different frameworks of Lapayese and Cole.  Also along these lines, you note the Freeman and Trantner phrase “degraded state”; it might be useful to put this up against the phrase “urban wildscapes,” which is a re-framing effort similar to yours.  And along these lines, this is a great line that highlights the role and complexity of “home”:  “We cannot dismiss a person’s home environment simply because it is not deemed to be ‘nature’”!