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Education for Regeneration—Why EE Is Natural for Personal Growth and Understanding: Part 2

Guest blog post written by Luis Camargo, founder of Organización para la Educación y Protección Ambiental/Organization for Environmental Education and Protection. To read part 1 of this series, visit Education for Regeneration—A Nature-Based Approach: Part 1.

Brain development and experience

During the early years (1–6) children develop most rapidly. Their brain architecture in their neural pathways and structures (neuroplasticity) also precipitously advances. In the following 10 years, higher cognitive functions are refined. Neuroplasticity continues with moments of heightened capacities for development but relies on the basic blocks created during the first years of life.

Beyond genetics and nutrition, experiences are the most important source of stimulation that promote neuroplasticity and define how the child’s brain architecture ultimately is configured. Experiences are a collection of diverse stimuli and feedback loops that allow the individual to sense, understand and interact with their environment.

In an urbanized and modern world where artificial environments and technology are becoming more prominent, they are replacing the experiences in nature and wilderness children had as a matter of course. This replacement of one type of experience, usually two-dimensional and devoid of anything that engages the whole body for three-dimensional poses significant challenges for the growth of children in the physical and emotional realms.

As many children’s experiences in nature are even almost nonexistent, the early brain development of a child is impacted when we consider human potential. As more children receive less stimulation or a narrower frame of reference in how they are taught, and how they learn and grow toward adulthood, we are only beginning to understand the impact. However, when emotional and intellectual growth is constricted and less holistic, we surmise that a child becomes more removed from social responsibility.

Perhaps the moral development of the child becomes more self-centered and less community-oriented when they are exposed to a narrower band of education that is disconnected from nature. Using Kohlberg’s Moral Development Model, there may be a greater proclivity toward acting more toward personal gratification as opposed to the greater good when children are sequestered from the natural world in their education.[i] The impact is then more deleterious to the concept we are a part of and connected to one another and the natural, human-made environment.

Just for a moment close your eyes and try to imagine these two scenarios. You are a newborn lying in your crib:

  1. As you open your eyes you see a room painted in white or a flat color, stark straight walls colliding at right angles, a colorful mobile hanging to stimulate you, music or the city sounds around you; stable environmental temperature, no particular olfactory stimulation. 
  2. As you open your eyes you see a tree canopy moving in the cool breeze, light shimmering through the multi-colored leaves rustling as they interact, and several trees dancing together in front of a blue and white sky. Birds fly by and sing around you. Small flying critters speckle under the sunlight, and the wind caresses your skin. Moist soil smell invades your nose.

Using these two limited examples, is it clear which would provide a more complete path for a growing or developing brain? If you were a nervous system developing, can you see the differences between the two scenarios? Which would more completely engage the senses of the four senses, sight, hearing, touch, and taste? Remember you are creating the brain architecture needed based on your experience.  To be able to sense and understand your environment, to also feel a part of your environment, one of these examples would seem to be more nurturing.

If the first scenario is more representative of today’s environment for young children, then what outcomes will result? How are we going to develop and activate our innate regenerative capacity if early and K–12 education and modern life do not provide the necessary experiences that nature affords children?

Is it the treatise here that we must accept a situation where children should have one reality versus another? As Richard Louv has repeated many times “The More High-Tech We Become, the More Nature We Need.” Therefore, it seems sensible to provide a more complete environment for the growth and development of children that includes both.

Studies in learning and development have shown many of the types of stimuli and environments needed for healthy development.  Few have focused on the role of nature and constant access to nature experiences alone or in tandem with technology. However, understanding that in order to address the complexities of brain development, it is essential to think of a more complete way of addressing brain growth.

After raising two children with nature and having worked with thousands of children of all ages in nature-based learning, my empirical evidence suggests nature is fundamental and allows to shape and form a brain architecture attuned to living systems in a way that individuals are able to perceive and understand interdependence and interconnectedness of all life. 

The Pillars for Nature-Based Regenerative Education

In order to achieve a balance, to meet the needs of healthy development, I have developed OpEPA (Organización para la Educación y Protección Ambiental/ Organization for Environmental Education and Protection) an experience-based approach. The goal is to create learning experiences that support education for regeneration.

This approach has two segments or sections that give context and form.

The first is what I call the Pillars for Nature-Based Regenerative Education. It has three main pillars and a fourth “crossbeam,” something that connects and supports the components. This configuration becomes empowering to create a permanent way to address healthy development for children.

Connect

 One of our main concerns, the human-nature disconnect, requires a need to focus on establishing deep linkages with nature from the moment we are born. This means that learning experiences should engage all aspects of human perception and capacity to relate:  mind, body, heart, and spirit. In order to do this, newborns need exposure and access to nature, feeling the breeze, seeing the light shimmer through the leaves, listening to birds chirp and insects buzz, being at home in nature, and sharing nature with parents (adults) and siblings (other children).

Connecting deeply requires constant contact with nature in supporting and safe environments, allowing children to develop a sense of community with all life around them. This sets the stage for a child to develop a sense of kinship. This process leads to our realization there is a place where we feel like an intricate and natural part of an interconnected and interdependent living system.

Connecting is all about falling in love with nature, developing nature empathy, and being a part of nature. It is therefore necessary to create meaningful learning where students see how nature relates to them and how they relate to nature. Learning in this sense is a process that occurs by recognizing a child’s innate curiosity, honoring that, and allowing exploration in a safe natural environment.[3]

Sense

As we create the conditions and experiences that allow us to feel deeply connected, we start developing our capacities to trust and feel a part of nature. In short, it is engaging our senses, something children have innately. The late Sir Ken Robinson has shared, children have the proclivity to be creative, to ask questions, and to feel the world around them. But at some point, they are dissuaded and “turn off” those natural abilities.[4]

Feeling home or having a sense of belonging to nature is a first step that is achieved by deeply connecting, what Joseph Cornell calls “Deep Nature Play.”[5] I refer to this pillar as the process of awakening our naturalist spirit. Early naturalists were foremost observers, listeners, explorers, and feelers. Their capacity to sense went beyond the visible in many cases. It required developing other ways of sensing the invisible, the interactions, energy flows, and essential life qualities (vitality). Allowing opportunities for infants and children to enhance their sensing capacity with continued exposure to nature. It also requires us to allow for deep contemplation, silence, and unstructured experiences to guide exploration and discovery. Additionally, guidance and mentorship are vital in the learning process to ask, and learn to ask the important questions. It supports the drive to find multiple answers/solutions. Mentors guide attention and focus not only to the visible but also to finer and more subtle threads that define relationships and create the patterns of life, the invisible. 

Act

Acting with the volition to create the conditions for all life to thrive around them/us is the final pillar. This is what allows for the creating of regenerative cultures and the weaving of individual and collective actions.  It starts from a child’s world, their frame of reference to their space. It then proceeds to their local and bioregional place and to the building blocks for planetary health and wellbeing.

As an individual grows, so does the development of critical thinking skills. They need to recognize their current circumstances, understand the past and identify the scaffolding that has led them to this critical moment on our planet. It is a critical step in making personal meaning.

Learning from the example of our ancestors from many origins that lived and live in harmony with life, allows us to move through the pain and anxiety (social and environmental) into active hope as Joanna Macy has masterfully described it. [6]  She identifies this component as a “journey of finding, and offering, our unique contributions.”[7] This is also noted in the Tbilisi Declaration as the path we must take to “participate in the world we live, individually and collectively.”[8] 

Developing a deep connection and the capacity to sense the visible and the invisible equips individuals with the possibility to perceive the dynamics for the health of a living system. Being able to recognize and be grateful for the magic of life expressions and processes, to be aware of the impact and ripples generated by our actions is a worthy and necessary outcome.

Ultimately, this is the objective of education for regeneration, activating individuals‘ regenerative capacities. It is inspiring action that leads to the transition from our current degenerative lifestyles and ways of being to ones that allow life to co-evolve and thrive.

The Cross-Beam Component: Nourish

The cross beam is nourishing our regenerative capacity so it can learn, adapt and evolve constantly. Nourishing the mind, body, heart, and spirit is fundamental to maintaining our regenerative capacity. Lifelong learning and conscious experience are vital. We can nourish the mind, the soul, and the body. Constantly engaging in learning experiences with an open attitude will nourish the mind, meditation and other practices can nourish our soul, and food can nourish our body.

I believe, one of the most important ways we experience our interconnection and interdependence with nature is through food and drink, sometimes referred to as “breaking bread.” And in the process of lifelong learning food is always nourishing us and brings us together. Using our relationship with food as an anchor in education for regeneration can become a connector to the whole process of connecting, sensing, and acting for regeneration.

Creating a culture of an intentional and conscious relationship with food allows us to connect deeply every day with living systems and the way organisms interact and create abundance in service of life.
Being intentional is about choosing the best choices and using the choice to impact and mold the system. Our choices are rapid feedback mechanisms into the food system, and how it should evolve.
Having a conscious relationship with food for me is about being fully present in the food experience, becoming aware of all the interactions and individuals (human and nonhuman) that allow for that food to be accessible, enjoying food and what it offers with awareness and gratitude. An example of connecting people to local food, where it begins, how it is grown, and creating an intimate environment for people to interact, is Chef Katie Button, in Asheville, North Carolina. Her Heirloom Hospitality Group (Cúrate And Nightbell) encourages people to "break-bread" with one another, know about the food they are eating, and connect to the land that grows their sustenance. 

Up to now, we have explored the basic needs and pillars of education for regeneration, the key components of moving towards a living systems approach to participating in the co-evolution of life on our planet.

Part three of this series will entail “HOW” we can approach the process of learning for regeneration. How environmental education can be a vehicle to promote child growth, curiosity, and development.

[1] C.A. Nelson (2000). Credit:Center on the Developing Child. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/inbrief-science-of-ecd/

[2] Snarey, J. (2012). Lawrence Kohlberg: Moral biography, moral psychology, and moral pedagogy.

[3] Combs, Arthur and Donald Snygg. Perceiving, Behaving, Becoming: A New Focus for Education. (Alexandria,, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

[4] Robinson, Sir Ken. Changing Education Paradigms.

[5] Cornell, Joseph Bharat. Deep Nature Play; A Guide to Wholeness, Aliveness, Creativity, and inspired Learning. (Nevada City, CA: Crystal Clarity Publishers, 2017.

[6] Macy, Joanna and Chris Johnstone. Active Hope. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2022).

[7] Ibid.

[8] United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Tbilisi Declaration. (Tbilisi, Georgia (USSR): October 14-26, 1977).

Editor and photo contribution: Joe Baust

Photo: Bregenz, Austria - Young Persons School