Building a Relationship with the Earth

Cover image Building a Relationship with the Earth/ boy hugging a tree

We all have our own reasons and motivations for wanting to look after the Earth. Many of us understand that we need to do our part to care for the Earth and to ensure a future for the generations to come. However, our underlying beliefs affect how we approach looking after the Earth. Most importantly, our relationship with the Earth is what will ultimately drive the decisions that we make. This post will discuss different ways that you can guide your students in building a relationship with the Earth.

Childhood is the critical time to start building relationships with the Earth. As educators, we can make opportunities to start to grow these relationships and understandings of the Earth. Even if you don’t teach at an outdoor school or Forest and Nature School, there are ways that we can help our students to get outdoors and build this understanding of their role in nature. 

It is only once we understand our role in nature that we can start to make decisions and changes that will affect the Earth and our impact on her. By coming to know how the Earth looks after us, we can also begin to understand how we can best look after the Earth.

two kids examining a butterfly with magnifying glasses

Different Perspectives on Our Relationship to the Earth​

As teachers, we share some of our own beliefs through what and how we teach. For this reason, if we are going to teach our students about environmental issues, we must first understand our own beliefs and understandings. I have invented three general categories that describe our beliefs about looking after the Earth. These categories are based mostly on my own observations. I am not intending to offend anyone with any of these categories, it is just a way to start thinking about your own relationship. 

Different parts of your life may even fit into different categories. We also might fit into different categories at different times in our lives. People are always evolving and changing. The circumstances of our lives are constantly changing as well.  

1. Responsible Land Use​

People who fall into the category of responsible land use believe that the Earth is here to provide resources for us. These resources are free to be used by us, including for profit and industry. This is more of a hierarchical relationship with the Earth in which humans are able to control how the land is used. The choice to look after the Earth is left up to individuals. 

This relationship with the land is lead by capitalism and consumerism. In this relationship, we don’t necessarily change our way of living, but instead make “responsible substitutions.” For example, it may mean purchasing an environmentally friendly cleaning product instead of the the bargain brand. Or perhaps we buy an assortment of reusable items with good intentions. We do not stop purchasing items, instead we purchase items that we think are better for the environment. Greenwashing of items is the result of this relationship with the Earth. The actual action isn’t given much thought, it is just substituted for something else which we perceive to be better. 

2. Stewardship/Caring for the future​

Those who fall into the category of stewardship of the Earth, understand that their actions affect the Earth. However, there is still an element of hierarchy involved. In this way of looking after the Earth, humans believe that they have the responsibility to look after the Earth. Oftentimes, this understanding of looking after the Earth is based in religious belief or an understanding that the Earth was provided for us to look after. It is in our best interest to look after the Earth so that those in the future can also share the benefits. 

3. Reciprocal Relationships with the Earth​

People who live in a reciprocal relationship with the Earth believe that they too are a part of the system. The Earth provides for us, and we in turn give back to the Earth. This means that we take only what we need, we respect the limits of what we are provided, and we find a way to return or thank the Earth for the gifts that have been given to us. In this relationship, there is no hierarchy of humans being in charge or the Earth being here to benefit only humans. Instead there is an understanding of the significance of everything in nature. 

The reciprocal relationship with the Earth is based on a much more thoughtful way of being with the Earth. This relationship is built only through spending time in nature and gaining an understanding of our role in nature. Through spending time with nature we come to see both nature’s limitations as well as our own limitations. We see how the health of the Earth not only affects the health of our communities, but of ourselves as well. 

a child in the forest with binoculars

Building Relationships With the Earth​

Just as building a relationship with people takes time and intention, building a relationship with the Earth and understanding our own role in nature also takes time. If we want our students to have this deep and meaningful relationship with the Earth and go beyond Greenwashing and consumerism, we need to allow them to spend quality time in nature. 

1. Create time and space for outdoor play​

Children can only build relationships with nature and with the Earth if they have time and space to be with her. Children need to have time outdoors to engage with nature and build an understanding of her systems at work. This time in nature needs to go beyond just a single field trip. Instead they need repeated exposure to natural spaces. They need to be able to play, explore, and discover nature in that space. 

It is through these repeated exposures that children begin to understand their own role in nature. They develop empathy for the living things in that space and an attitude of respect towards the plants and animals in their learning space. They begin to feel a sense of belonging in that space, instead of seeing nature as being something separate from themselves. 

Try Sit Spots​

Sit spots are used in Forest and Nature Schools as a way of allowing children to connect to the space that they are in. Children choose their own sit spot. It is a spot where they are able to be alone within the boundaries of the outdoor learning space. Children go to their sit spot during sit spot time. During this time they are meant to sit quietly and simply “be” in their spot. Start with a short period of time for the sit spot and gradually increase the time as the children become more comfortable with the exercise. 

2. Read stories that reflect a relationship with the Earth​

In your daily lessons, whether outdoors or indoors, incorporate stories and picture books about nature. Choose books that help students to feel a sense of wonder, awe, and belonging in nature. You can also include books that introduce students to Indigenous understandings of the land.

a teacher and students sitting beneath a tree

3. Model and teach this relationship​

Children learn more from our examples than from what we tell or teach them. In your teaching and working with the students, find ways that you can demonstrate what it looks like to be in a reciprocal relationship with the Earth. For example you can:

  • look at leaves and flowers/ show them to the students and not pick them (If you like you can explain why you didn’t pick them.)
  •  leave natural materials in the learning space
  • show students sensitive or overused areas and talk about why we are going to stay away from those areas
  • share leave no trace principles with students, discuss why they are important
  • model making good choices that help the Earth

4. Provide opportunities for students to give back​

Part of growing a reciprocal relationship with the Earth is giving back to the Earth. Work with your students to find ways that they can give back to the Earth through either their words or actions. It may be as simple as thanking a tree for a branch that the student will be using during their play. It may also be a much larger project in which students rehabilitate a habitat space. As much as possible encourage your students in directing these projects. Student direction will allow the students to feel a sense of empowerment and deepen their relationship with the Earth. 

5. Provide opportunities for discussion​

In building a relationship with the Earth it is important that students feel that they are able to discuss their thoughts and feelings about this relationship. There are so many issues affect our Earth and the Environment right now and many children feel a sense of anxiety. It’s important that students feel safe and comfortable discussing their thoughts and feelings about the topic. 

When discussing the Earth, it is important to build feelings of hope and resilience in your students. Don’t just focus on the “doom and gloom” that we hear about in the news. Instead, focus on what we can do and how we can further our relationship with the Earth and encourage others to do the same. 

4 kids laughing together in a forest

Now It’s Time to Start Building Relationships With The Earth​

Almost all adult environmentalists will speak of fond outdoor memories that they had as a child. They talk about repeatedly visiting a familiar spot and spending time engaged in their own independent and self-directed play or exploration. It is through this time outdoors, that they developed a relationship with the Earth and a desire to help the Earth in the future. 

As teachers, we can provide opportunities for our students to get outside into nature and start building a relationship with the Earth. We can provide time outdoors throughout our school day or school year so that our children have the opportunity to get outside and learn about their own role in nature. Teaching students about nature and the systems and cycles in nature from a textbook only further separates them from nature. However, learning about nature from nature herself creates lifelong learning and allows students to start understanding their own place in nature. 

Keep Reading…

Get Outside With Your Students All Year…

Similar Posts