Stewardship activities can lead to more-than-human encounters

Ruck, A. ., & Mannion, G. . (2021). Stewardship and beyond? Young people’s lived experience of conservation activities in school grounds. Environmental Education Research, 27(10), 1502-1516.

In 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the globe was experiencing its sixth mass extinction and conservation action was needed. Conservation activities, such as planting trees, can empower participants and instill pro-environmental behaviors. However, there has been new insight into the pedagogy associated with stewardship. A long-standing view on stewardship activities presents humans with the power to save nature, which further divides humans and nature, as opposed to considering their inseparability. A new pedagogical approach deemed "common world pedagogies”, instead emphasizes humans' co-existence with natural systems and recommends not rushing to find solutions. Research on conservation activities usually focuses on older participants participating in voluntary events rather than children in formal education. This study analyzed the conservation program Polli:Nation in the UK. The researchers sought to understand the lived experience of children in the Polli:Nation program and how they related to the more-than-human world through conservation activities.

The Polli:Nation program aimed to transform UK school grounds into pollinator-friendly places to foster an interactive nature-human environment. The Polli:Nation program was administered in 260 schools across the United Kingdom from 2016 to 2018. The majority of participants were primary school students aged 9 to 13 years. The students in this program learned about the decline of pollinator species such as bees. Students were given conservation tasks which included planting pollinator-friendly flowers, installing ponds, and making ‘bug hotels' of various sizes. The schools that participated in Polli:Nation administered surveys at the beginning and conclusion of the program to monitor pollinator biodiversity, however those results were not used in this study. Data for this study was collection through observations. The lead researcher observed 30 program sessions at 12 Polli:Nation school sites including 7 primary and 5 secondary schools. As an observer, the researcher participated in activities with the youth and took notes before and after activities on what happened and what they noticed. The researcher analyzed their notes to determine the effects of the curricula, planned and not planned (as in, the lived experience), on the children.

The researchers observations revealed that the planned curricula of Polli:Nation had a focus on stewardship with a utilitarian focus. Students were to build pollinator gardens to attract more pollinators, collect data on the process, and in the end have an outcome that benefitted humans. However, observations also revealed the way these conservation activities were enacted allowed space for more-than-human encounters and other outcomes, referred to as the lived curricula. Key to that was the relaxed atmosphere of the program which allowed for much free time and exploration. Unplanned time allowed for excitement, fascination, and empathy to form in the children. For example, the students were excited to see ladybugs and were fascinated observing the bees in their hives. The students demonstrated a considerable emotional depth, or empathy, by wanting to create homes for pollinators at home, which the loosely structured programming allowed. These lived curricula moments differed from the planned curricula and emerged a concept the researchers named "collective thinking with the more-than-human world”. Collective thinking signifies thinking that is beyond a cognitive and rational process, and instead embraces embodied, non-rational ways of knowing that do not separate humans and nature. However, the researchers do note the lived curricula may have not been possible without the planned curricula, such that the prior experiences of learning about pollinators and their habitats may have influenced the participants lived experience. Overall, despite critique to conservation activities, these results show how conservation activities can be in line with common world pedagogies.

This study had limitations, and results are not generalizable. The research is based off the observations of one adult researcher, which could have introduced bias and skewed results. It is also unclear the length of each participant observation session.

The researchers recommend utilizing conservation activities in youth programming. These activities can promote collective thinking with the more-than-human world and unplanned, exciting, experiences. The researchers suggest two key ways to follow through with stewardship activities. For one, programmers should utilize slower pedagogies. For example, there should be an overarching goal for an activity, but speed and efficiency of completing the task should not be the focus. Secondly, conservations activities should overlap with multiple disciplines. Overlapping subject manner in the activity helps takeaway from the focus on scientific knowledge gain and allows room for more "non-technical” learning.

The Bottom Line

Conservation activities, usually focused on how humans can save nature, are a common environmental education practice. However, there is little research on how young people experience conservation activities, as research usually focuses on adults. Polli:Nation is a conservation initiative in the UK from 2016-2018 focused on making pollinator habitats at schools primarily for students aged 9-13 years. The researcher observed 30 sessions at 7 schools to understand students' lived experience in the program and its effect on their relations with the more-than-human world. Results showed the relaxed atmosphere of the program prompted lived curricula and collective thinking with the more-than-human world. The researchers recommend utilizing conservation activities in youth programming with a focus on slow pedagogies and cross-subject learning.

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