Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World

It is becoming increasingly clear that our survival as a species depends on re-imagining our relationship with nature.  We need to cultivate ecological understanding – an awareness of our interconnectedness with the natural world based on particular knowledge and emotional connections with the local, natural world.  Unfortunately, current approaches to developing students’ ecological understanding, what might be described as ecological education, are missing the mark due, among other reasons, to a theoretical and practical neglect of the imagination. What can IEE offer those teachers/administrators/schools interested in cultivating ecological understanding amongst their students?

IEE brings the emotional and imaginative engagement of the child to the center of theory and practice. By designing pedagogy around the distinctive features of students’ imaginative lives, IEE can more routinely engage the body, emotion and imagination in the local natural and cultural context in which students live and learn. This is a new approach to ecological education.  Because IEE is a cross-curricular approach to teaching suitable for students in elementary through secondary school in urban, sub-urban, or rural contexts, IEE makes it possible for the development of ecological understanding to take place alongside the fulfillment of curricular requirements.  Learn more about us.


Please share your ideas with our IEE members and join the conversation by responding to our question of the month:

Can we educate for ecological understanding in urban settings?
If so, how? If not, what does this mean for an increasingly urban world?


Yannis Hadzigeorgiou

This question is quite challenging. If ecological understanding is developed through first hand experiences in the natural world, as a number of environmental educators claim, then urban settings can only offer opportunities for second hand, vicarious experiences. Although the extent to which such second hand experiences can help develop ecological understanding has not been specifically researched, it appears that the ‘emotional significance’ of the natural world and certain ideas associated with it can be grasped. This significance, in turn, can help with the development of ecological understanding. Of course, the evidence from some studies is limited but encouraging. However, on the other hand, the assessment of such understanding needs to take place over a number of years, but I don’t know of any longitudinal studies that report just that. But this is a problem with many studies in the context of education.

It goes without saying that kids will have, at some point, some first hand experiences in Nature. Yet, educating in urban settings without any opportunity to experience Nature is something to bear in mind, given that this seems to be a possibility for kids in some parts of the world. It is for this reason that we need empirical studies on the way ecological understanding can be developed through indirect experiences.

Kieran Egan

I suppose the drive for ecological education is very largely a product of more and more people living in urban settings. Didn’t we recently pass an estimated transition from most people living in rural contexts to most people living in urban contexts? There was not much concern to teach about ecology to students brought up in countryside settings, even though no doubt a case could be made that they need ecological education as much as urban students. So I guess the answer had better be yes or we might worry even more about the role of ecological education.

It is a rare environment that has no living plant life, however “well-tended” streets and buildings may be. Often, in really well-tended streets and around buildings the cultivated plant life is almost a confection, so distantly removed from anything wild that it seems not to suggest easy ways in which such plants can be used to engage imaginations in undomesticated life. But one route of escape from such environments can be provided by school gardens, or plots of land or boxes in which the student can feel some association with things that grow, even if what we sometimes classify as weeds. The undecorative and “useless” plants can maybe form a basis for some developing ecological education, and some hint of the wild that is waiting, waiting for us to pause and the concrete to crack and the metal to rust.


Nature is everywhere. On a microscopic level our bodies are full of natural elements. Most urban environments have trees and parks where birds, small mammals, etc. have their habitats. Insects are definitely everywhere.It is possible to growing vegetables indoors and I think it should be something that many of us Northern dwellers learn to do because eventually we may not be able to transport our food such long distances. It is very important for all to learn there place and how to be self-sufficient and live together with the nature in that place. As our populations grow we need to live closer together and preserve our wild places. We should, like Singapore, green our cities.

A New Approach to Ecological Education

By Gillian Judson

image_miniA New Approach to Imaginative Ecological Education: Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World (New York, Peter Lang).

Gillian Judson is one of the directors of the IERG and is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University. The book offers a major critique of current ecological education programs, and offers an imaginative alternative.



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