Research Summary

Between indigenous and non-indigenous: Urban/nature/child pedagogies

Integrating indigenous perspectives and environmental education broadens place-based pedagogies

Environmental Education Research

This paper addresses three themes emerging from a review of articles published over a five-year period (2013–2017) in Environmental Education Research on land-based education: (1) land, country and place; (2) settler colonial critiques of environmental education; and (3) the significance of language and naming. It also offers Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspectives on urban/nature/child pedagogies relating to a school conservation project on the grounds of Willmot Public School in Sydney, Australia. The discussion includes an analysis of children’s images and texts in the book, Because Ecosystems Matter, produced as an outcome of the project.

This review demonstrates that indigenous issues in relation to environmental education are rarely addressed in the journal. Outside of a special issue on “land based education,” only two other articles mention the intersection of indigenous concerns and environmental education. This absence reinforces the idea that as urbanization increases, indigenous languages and knowledges are being lost along with the loss of species. One example of this loss is reflected in place-based pedagogy, which often fails to address colonial legacies and omits the indigenous concept of place.

A conservation project of the Willmot Public School and the children’s response to it reflect a hybrid form of urban place-based pedagogy. Students at this urban school planted about 30 species of near-extinct wildflowers and native grasses in a remnant stand of eucalypt trees on the school grounds. Without native ground cover, entire ecological communities of the Cumberland Plain Woodland were endangered. The student population of Willmot Public School is approximately 20% Aboriginal children and 40% multicultural children from many different countries and language groups. In addition to learning about the importance of the ground cover to the ecosystem, students also learned about the traditional uses of the plants from an Aboriginal elder. Their drawings and stories about the project were compiled for the book, Because Ecosystems Matter.

The first part of the book describes what might be expected of a place-based environmental education project. There’s an implicit assumption that urban development is bad, that there has been a loss of species diversity and natural landscapes, and that the children will learn about their environment through planting the remnant Cumberland Plain. The narrative changes in the next section of the book, where the description of the actual project begins. Here, the children’s drawings include Aboriginal visual symbols and language, and the stories tell of plant use and of animals that once lived in the Cumberland Plain. The children’s images and stories differ dramatically from some environmental education narratives where a romanticized past is contrasted with a despoiled urban present.

The children’s view of the future includes a place where animals come to inhabit their woodland and there’s a “remaking” of the relationship between humans and plants. This view reflects how pedagogies integrating Aboriginal perspectives might offer all children the possibility of imagining a time and place where their learning and actions have the potential to name and change their worlds.