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A better earth: let it begin with me!

Jillian, a petite 4-year-old, recently gazed at herself in a full-length mirror and happily exclaimed, "I LOVE me!" All children should share this child's enthusiasm for life and for their own uniqueness.

The process of establishing environmental harmony must begin with the self. Harmony within oneself is achieved through feelings of security, self-worth, self-efficacy and well-being. This harmonious microsphere helps prepare the foundation for extended interactions with and respect for friends, neighbors and all others on the Earth; i.e., the macrosphere (Erikson, 1956).

Children begin to appreciate and respect life at an early age. They learn to care for their bodies, recognize the need for sufficient quantities of food and sleep, clean themselves, play, explore and avoid unsafe behaviors. Through sensory experiences with the natural environment, children learn more about themselves in relation to their world. Whereas the younger child relies heavily upon present, concrete perceptual input in dealing with the world (centration), the older child is more likely to include more abstract past, present and future considerations (decentration) (Flavell, 1977).

Piaget maintains that the child's progress from sensorimotor, to pre-operational, to concrete operational and finally to formal operational thought is paralleled by the child's stages of moral development.

In terms of the centration-decentration process, the child moves from centration on self, to centration on authority, to centration on concrete situations and finally to a higher level of decentration in which one is able to deal with ideas and realistic applications of values to social situations. (Lee, 1976, p. 133)

As children begin to achieve a sense of self, they learn to understand the needs and feelings of others. Through family and friends, children extend their knowledge about the need for routines, for sharing, for caring and for giving and taking.

Positive early experiences with the self, with others and with the environment help from the foundation for the individual's later appreciation of the world (Bandura, 1977). Showing respect and responsibility, sharing, decision-making, cooperating, problem-solving and creating will ideally transfer from the self to others and to the world in a spiral-like fashion.

This article addresses the individual's three levels of environmental understanding: self, others and the world. The authors describe an ongoing, integrated ecology unit implemented in the senior author's primary grade classrooms.

Students in this unit have opportunities to speak, listen, read and write using integrated content area activities. The teacher employs knowledge of the student's developmental and ecological awareness levels. Learning about ecological issues, like all learning, is a continual process and not merely a product. Therefore, the activities herein enlist children's prior knowledge and their repertoire of ecological understandings in a cumulative fashion.


No one sees the things I see Behind my eyes is only me And no one knows where my feelings begin There's only me inside my skin No one does what I can do I'll be me and you be you.

When children learn to appreciate their own uniqueness, they are free to explore their ideas, feelings, concerns, fears and lifestyles (Axline, 1967) and to establish inner satisfaction and self-confidence. It becomes a paramount task, therefore, for caregivers and teachers to help children uncover their individual self-worth and identity.

With the ultimate goal of helping children discover their unique selves while simultaneously helping them discover their place in the world, caregivers can introduce sensory learning experiences. Specifically, they may add to children's competencies in: respecting themselves, caring for their bodies and appreciating their own uniqueness. Related activities include:

Developing Self-Respect

* Shadow Play. Early in the day, take the children outside to observe shadows. Ask pairs of children to trace each other's shadows with chalk on the hard-top. Note differences in shadow length and position. Children can observe and discuss the differences and similarities among themselves.

Extensions. Learn about the properties of children's bodies and shadows through experimentation: running, forming "statues," walking backward, crawling and doing headstands. Photograph each child's shadow and use the photos in a guessing game called, "Who Am I?" Children will discover their classmates' unique properties.

Celebrate Each Day

Last year I gave myself one hundred and eight celebrations--besides the ones they close school for.

* Celebrate Each Day. Invite the children to brainstorm personal reasons to celebrate each day of the year. Ask children to bring in photographs of families, homes and pets and have them share collections, hobbies, favorite books and toys. The children will explore their own uniqueness, learn more about others, and begin to realize that we all have our own reasons to be thankful and celebrate.

Caring for the Body

* Select and Sample. Bring the children to a local farm or fruit orchard where a farmer demonstrates how the crops are grown and harvested. Each child can then select three or four healthful treats (e.g., pears, carrots, strawberries, potatoes). Upon returning, hold a Healthful Snacks Fest. The children can help by cleaning the snacks, arranging them on serving trays and serving them to others. Graph and discuss children's food choices. Then, together, write a Language Experience Story about the children's food preferences. Finally, ask everyone to find examples of the four food groups, helping the children discover the importance of each group in maintaining a "healthy self."

Appreciating One's Uniqueness

* Here I Am Quilt. Make a paper quilt using 5" by 5" squares of construction paper. Ask the children to construct cut-paper self-portraits for the center of their squares and then surround the figure with pictures that portray their uniqueness. Assemble the complete squares into a quilt. For example, Andre draws himself in the center of the square. Around his own figure, he pastes pictures of his dogs, his parakeet, trees in his back yard, his favorite color, his home and his new baby sister.

Extensions. Read The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. Compare the family quilt in the story with the children's quilts. Create an "Earth Helpers" quilt by surrounding the center figure with pictures of ways children can help the Earth (e.g., planting trees, cleaning up litter, recycling and protecting animals). Children can color an "Earth Helpers" design onto sandpaper squares and then, placing the colored side down, use a warm iron to "press" the design onto a large sheet of muslin, forming a unique class quilt.


Friendship is a word the very sight of which in print makes the heart warm.

To achieve a continued sense of well-being and self-worth, children must establish secure and healthy relationships with others. Friendship in the neighborhood and classroom is a powerful vehicle that helps children learn more about themselves and their world. Through positive friendships and social groups, children learn to express themselves and to feel comfortable and accepted in the world. In turn, they learn respect for others and develop a sense of responsibility and citizenship.

Selected goals for promoting children's friendships and regard for others include: respecting others, cooperating with others and appreciating the uniqueness of others.

Activities that integrate the theme of friendship/respect for others include the following:

Respecting Others

* Helping Hands. Read Just for You by Mercer Mayer and discuss the giving of gifts, services, advice and help. Have the children make Helping Hands Coupon Books by tracing their hands five times on pieces of paper. In the center of each hand, the child writes a promise to perform a service for a family member that maintains or beautifies the household. Examples include raking leaves, watering the garden and feeding the family pet. Bind the paper hands into booklets. When the recipient wishes to have the service performed, he/she tears out the appropriate coupon and presents it to the child. Each coupon is good for one use only.

Cooperating with Others

* Ants: A Cooperative Community. Read Ant Cities by Doros and discuss how ants cooperate for the good of the community. Purchase an ant farm or construct one following the book's directions. Children can observe the ants, classify the types of ants, record ant behaviors, measure the distance they travel, infer which are the leaders and followers, predict where they will travel and report on their lifestyles. Ask them to write daily observations in Response Journals and to share them with the class. Next, introduce Two Bad Ants by Van Allsburg, a book that illustrates what can happen when two members of the ant community do not work for the common good.

Extensions. Map the journey of the ants in the story Two Bad Ants, using blocks, unifix cubes or mural paper. Construct ants and ant farms from paper or clay. Search for indoor and outdoor sites where ants are found. Explore situations in which people, like ants, cooperate for the common good and help one another. Use newspapers, magazines and daily news broadcasts for such human interest stories.

Appreciating the Uniqueness of Others

* Earth Appreciation Web. Sit in a circle on a large classroom rug. Holding the end piece of a ball of yarn, the teacher tosses the ball to a child. The teacher says, "David, I appreciate you because you were our Swamp Walk leader and set a good example for others." The recipient tosses the ball to another child who repeats the phrase and adds a new ending. A Web of Appreciation results, connecting all children and adults.

Extension. Demonstrate what happens when one child lets go of the yarn and discuss the results. Apply this occurrence to situations in which one person does not do a fair share of the job, examining the consequences (for example, in a group project such as recycling classroom papers).


A Better Earth

A better Earth for our sisters, our brothers, A better Earth for our sons and our daughters; Clean oceans, lush farmlands, pure air and fresh streams; Our vision, our future, our hopes and our dreams, So let's make a difference for the whole world to see-- A better Earth begins with you and with me.

Achieving global awareness and respect for our world is a realizable goal if individuals and groups first learn to respect themselves and one another. The principles of self-respect (valuing our uniqueness, caring for ourselves, liking ourselves) and of respect for others (cooperating, helping others, caring for others) are cumulative. Given a wide range of natural and progressive learning opportunities, children may become sophisticated problem-solvers (Bruner, Goodnow & Austin, 1956). Then they will be prepared to engage in behaviors that preserve and beautify our planet Earth.

Establishing an early foundation of experiences and discoveries about nature helps the child to later understand broader and more complicated, abstract issues. Beautification, environmental problem-solving and respect for our world are examples of these more global issues.

Goals designed to assist children in their acquisition of global understanding include: respecting our planet Earth, beautifying our surroundings and demonstrating responsibility for all living things. Related, integrated activities include the following:

Respecting Our Planet Earth

* Adopt a Play Area. Extend the boundary walls of your classroom into the boundary walls of your classroom into the school yard and "adopt" this area. Ask the children to create a list of ideas for beautifying this space (e.g., picking up litter, pulling weeds and planting flowers to attract butterflies). Children can also care for local wildlife by hanging bird feeders. Invite each classroom to "adopt" an area near the school and care for it in a similar fashion for a prearranged period of time.

Extensions. Observe, record and predict wildlife sightings in the adopted area. Create decorations for classroom windows that encourage others to respect the environment. Collect the litter found in one day and sort it by recyclable, biodegradable and nonbiodegradable categories.

* Earth Day Parade. The entire school body can participate in an Earth Day Parade led by the school band. Consult local police about the parade route. Make banners and costumes that convey environmental messages. Transport handicapped children in wagons. Invite participation by community helpers such as police, fire and postal workers. Invite townspeople to watch.

Beautifying Our Surroundings

* Miss Rumphius. Read Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius, in which the protagonist makes the world a more beautiful place by planting colorful lupines in the fields around her home. Invite children to brainstorm ideas about how they might beautify the Earth. A possible activity is to plant a variety of flower seeds near the school and their homes. Research the needs of growing plants: water, fertile soil, sunshine and nurturing. Frequently water and weed the flower sites. Draw and record the flowers' growth and appearance in individual journals.

* What a Wonderful World. Have the children close their eyes and listen to "What a Wonderful World" (sung by Louis Armstrong), picturing the visual images the song conveys. Later, take the children on a nature walk or field trip, observing and recording the natural resources that they believe make the world wonderful (birds, green grass, insects, lakes and open spaces).

Children can develop an Action Plan to maintain our "wonderful world" by helping to combat the dangers facing natural resources. Action Plans might involve letters to legislators, cleanup campaigns and "Save Our Bay" Clubs.

Extensions. Ask children to collect samples of our "wonderful world" and make collages, decorative post cards, mobiles and wrist bracelets (use wide masking tape, sticky side out). Identify, sort and graph samples of our "wonderful world," according to properties identified by the children.

Demonstrating Responsibility for All Living Things

* Earth Helpers Bulletin Board. Construct a large classroom Earth Helpers Bulletin Board. Compose a group-authored letter explaining the class bulletin board to parents and inviting them to participate. Earth Helper contributions might include newspaper recycling, litter cleanup day, tree-planting festival or backyard vegetable gardening. Celebrate each child's achievement by posting the note and photo in a display on the bulletin board.

* Signs in Our Neighborhood. After reading Signs Along the River by Robertson, visit a nearby swamp, river, pond or beach. Collect samples of plant and animal life to identify, sort and graph. Brainstorm life needs and ways of conserving the discovered treasures. Be sure to return living creatures to their natural habitats at the conclusion of the study.

Extensions. Study animal tracks through the seasons in your environment. Photograph and/or sketch the tracks and, upon return to class, identify the animal source. Draw a map of your trip using wooden blocks and then liquid markers and paper. Make a class book entitled Signs in Our Neighborhood. Children contribute drawings of animals or plants they have observed. Display samples of nonliving items in labeled zip lock plastic bags in the Science Center.


The interaction of the child's developmental readiness with carefully planned environmental discovery activities is important to facilitate the child's ultimate global understanding. Individual and group activities, carefully planned and implemented, encourage children's progression from a state of centration to that of decentration, from self-preoccupation to other-centeredness and, finally, to global appreciation.

As children explore the natural environment, they begin to learn about themselves in relation to their world. Engaging in concrete, sensory experiences begins this unfolding process and establishes a foundation for children's social growth.

Family members, friends and classmates all interact with the child as he/she discovers the physical world. These interactions stimulate the child's decision-making, cooperation and creativity.

The individual's readiness to take a pro-active role in solving such complex and challenging problems as world hunger, overpopulation and extinction of animal species is strongly influenced by early impressions about the self and others. Educators can help shape these impressions by providing child-centered, authentic experiences.

Indeed, the future of the Earth rests upon efforts to foster understanding and insights about the environment in children. The suggestions put forth in this article represent only a small sampling of developmentally appropriate ecological learning opportunities for children. The children's previous ecological experiences and interests will suggest many additional discovery activities.

Is realizing a better Earth a mere cliche or euphemism? Not when each of us acknowledges and acts upon the belief that a better Earth "begins with me"!

Children's Books

Respect for Self and Others

Doros, A. (1988). Ant cities. New York: Harper Collins.

Freeman, D. (1964). Dandelion. New York: Viking Press.

Greenfield, E. (1978). Honey, I love and other love poems. New York: Harper Collins.

Krauss, R. (1971). Leo the late bloomer. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Leaf, M. (1936). Ferdinand. New York: Viking Press.

Lionni, L. (1974). Fish is fish. New York: Pinwheel Books.

Lionni, L. (1973). Frederick. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lionni, L. (1973). Swimmy. New York: Pantheon Books.

Mayer, M. (1975). Just for you. New York: Golden Books.

Ross, D. (1980). A book of hugs. New York: Crowell.

Silverstein, S. (1964). The giving tree. New York: Harper & Row.

Udry, J. (1961). Let's be enemies. New York: Harper & Row.

Van Allsburg, C. (1988). Two bad ants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Respect for Earth

Armstrong, L. (1967). What a wonderful world. Composed by G. D. Weiss & B. Theile. Columbia Records.

Baylor, B. (1986). I'm in charge of celebrations. New York: Scribner's Sons.

Cooney, B. (1982). Miss Rumphius. New York: Viking Press.

Cork, B. (1983). Mysteries and marvels of plant life. London: Usborne Publishing.

Geisel, T. S. (1984). The butter battle book. New York: Random House.

Krauss, R. (1945). The carrot seed. New York: Harper & Row.

Peet, B. (1970). The wump world. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Polacco, Patricia. (1988). The keeping quilt. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ranger Rick. Washington, DC: National Wildlife Federation.

Robertson, K. (1986). Signs along the river. Denver, CO: R. Rinehart.

Simon, N. (1975). All kinds of families. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman.

Spier, P. (1980). People. New York: Doubleday

Your Big Back Yard. Washington, DC: National Wildlife Federation.

Zolotow, C. (1963). The sky was blue. New York: Harper & Row.


Axline, V. M. (1967). Play therapy. New York: Ballantine Books.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Barbour, N. H., & Seefeldt, C. A. (1992). Developmental continuity. Childhood Education, 68, 302-304.

Bruner, J. S., Goodnow, J. J., & Austin, G. A. (1956). A study of thinking. New York: Wiley.

Cohen, D. (1990). Families. Minneapolis, MN: Simon & Schuster.

Cohen, S., & Trostle, S. L. (1990). This land is your land: Promoting ecological awareness in young children. Childhood Education, 66, 304-310.

Erikson, E. (1956). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Flavell, J. (1977). Cognitive development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Goldbeck, S. L., & Lison, L. S. (1988). A cognitive-development approach to children's representations of the environment. Children's Environments Quarterly, 5(3), 46-53.

Hopkins, S., & Winters, J. (1990). Discover the world. Philadelphia: New York Publishers.

Lee, L. C. (1976). Personality development in childhood. Monterey, CA: Wadsworth.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1986). Position statement on developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs from birth to age 8. Young Children, 4(6), 3-19.

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. New York: W. W. Norton.

Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books.

Rockwell, R. E., Sherwood, E. A., & Williams, R. A. (1986). Hug a tree. Mount Ranier, MD: Gryphon House.

Schell, J. (1982). The fate of the Earth. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Sisson, E. A. (1982). Nature with children of all ages. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Spectrum Books.

Trostle, S. L., & Yawkey, T. D. (1990). Integrated learning activities for young children. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Wade, R. C. (1991). Joining hands. Tucson, AZ: Zephyr Press.

Patricia Karmozyn and Barbara Scalise are Primary Teachers, Burrillville School District, Harrisville, Rhode Island. Susan Trostle is Associate Professor of Education, University of Rhode Island, Kingston.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Association for Childhood Education International
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Author:Trostle, Susan
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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