Preservation thought process

Pollution Preservation“Why can’t we live like you did when you were small? Play in clean forests, fish in every lake, drink clean water straight from the stream?” (Gribble, 1994, p. 55).

—Statement by an elementary-age child read at the World Commission on Environment and Development, Bergen, Norway, 1990

As evidenced by the quote above, children around the world wish for a clean environment. As they mature, children begin to recognize environmental issues, and the role of humans in addressing these concerns. Yet what is the role for early childhood educators in addressing this concern? How do we talk about pollution, preservation, and ecology? In this article, we answer these questions and present research findings on children and the environment.

Definitions

Ecology, or the “pattern of relations between organisms and their environment” (Webster, 1979, p. 357) is a fundamental principle which applies to many topics. We can discuss ecology as it relates to renewal and recycling of manufactured materials, for example, and/or we can discuss ecology as it relates to the renewal and recycling of nature, including wildlife and human populations. To recycle means “to process in order to regain material for human use” (Webster, 1991, p. 985). To pollute is to “contaminate (an environment), especially with man-made waste” (Webster, 1991, p. 911). When we preserve, we “keep safe from injury, harm, or destruction” (Webster, 1991, p. 931), while conservation refers to the “careful preservation and protection of something; planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect” (Webster, 1991, p. 279).

How Young Children Think About Ecology

Many educators are interested in discovering how children’s knowledge of pollution, preservation, and ecology unfolds. In general, we expect an understanding of this area to emerge parallel to the development of thought on other topics, although certain early childhood experiences might encourage interest in ecology. Kidd and Kidd (1997) examined the characteristics of 12 -to-16 year-olds who were active as volunteers at a wildlife museum in California.

Kidd and Kidd were interested in knowing what made these teens and pre-teens interested in ecological issues. To find out, the researchers interviewed all the volunteers over the telephone. Results showed that the volunteers had been exposed to and interested in wildlife issues at an early age. This exposure can include field trips or camping and owning and caring for a family pet. Thus, specific interest in ecology may be spawned by childhood experiences. At the same time, though, universal progressions in thought are developing over the course of childhood, as we can learn from Piaget.

Piaget’s Theory

One primary theory of how thought develops in young children was developed by Piaget (1926, 1936a, 1936b, 1969). Piaget was a stage theorist, which refers to a theorist who proposes a sequence of stages through which all children progress in the same order (Crain, 2000). The four stages Piaget proposed were:

  1. the Sensorimotor Stage (birth to two years of age);
  2. the Preoperational Stage (two to seven years of age);
  3. the Concrete Operational Stage (seven to 11 years of age);and
  4. the Formal Operational Stage (ages 11 and older).

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