Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education illustrates how to connect students to the natural world and encourage them to care about a more sustainable, ecologically secure planet. Cultivating ecological understanding can be more challenging for teachers than simply imparting knowledge of ecological issues; it requires reimagining the human world as part of, not apart from, nature.

Describing the key principles of an approach to teaching called Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE), this book offers a practical guide for all teachers (K–12). It is designed for use with any curriculum to give students opportunities to engage their bodies, emotions, and imaginations in the world around them, thereby making learning meaningful.

Order here, or at

NEW: Now Available on AMAZON: A Walking Curriculum: Evoking Wonder & Developing Sense of Place K-12 (Gillian Judson, 2018).  See all publications on Amazon here on Gillian’s author page.

See weekly articles about Imaginative Ecological Education on imaginED

Supporting Ecological Understanding Through InDepth And Imaginative Study Of A Place-Based Topic Or Issue

By Gillian Judson


Many have observed that the curriculum is a mile wide and scarcely an inch deep. This article provides a rationale for including in-depth study of a place-based/local topic within educational programs aimed at cultivating ecological understanding. Following a brief exploration of some of the obstacles to in-depth learning, it describes the ways in which in-depth and imaginative investigation can support ecological thinking. Consideration of beliefs and values concludes the piece; ideological and pedagogical factors will influence how teachers feel about implementing an imaginative, in-depth program of study and, ultimately, whether it becomes part of their professional practice.

Judson, G. (2017)(2015). Supporting Ecological Understanding Through InDepth And Imaginative Study Of A Place-Based Topic Or Issue, Canadian Journal of Environmental Education20, 139-153.

The Role of Mental Imagery in Imaginative and Ecological Teaching

By Gillian Judson

This article explores how mental imagery evoked from words might enhance the learning of cross-curricular content and how it may help cultivate students’ ecological understanding: that deep sense of connection to a living world and the care and concern to live differently within it. With reference to Elliott Eisner’s and Kieran Egan’s works, I offer a rationale for attending more fully to mental imagery in teaching. The article concludes with a discussion of pedagogical implications for more meaningful and engaging school experiences based on students’ and teachers’ imaginative engagement with curricular

Judson, G. (2014). The role of mental imagery in imaginative and ecological teaching. Canadian Journal of Education, 37 (4), pp. 1-17.


A New Approach to Ecological Education

Gillian Judson’s book, A New Approach to Imaginative Ecological Education: Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World, published by Peter Lang, New York. Gillian 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.

Synopsis: Ecological education is becoming a major area of interest worldwide, and schools are increasingly being called upon to address global and local ecological concerns. Unfortunately, most teachers have limited or no training in the knowledge and skills required to support their students’ sense of connection to the natural world. Moreover, they have been trained to teach in ways that often marginalize the imagination in learning. This book illustrates how imagination and the development of ecological understanding are closely connected. It offers teachers a practical guide to teaching in ecological and imaginative ways – needed support to establishing more ecologically-oriented education in all classrooms. As imagination takes a central position in schools, all teaching and learning can improve as a result.

Read the introduction to the book

Re-imagining Ecological Education

Ecological Education is gaining increasing popularity, its teachings about the interconnectedness of the world being acknowledged as vitally important to dealing with the pressing ecological issues we now face. The development of what some call ecological understanding is often cited as the aim of Ecological Education. To understand ecologically is to make sense of the human world as part of, not apart from, nature; it is to understand humankind’s “implicatedness in life” (Orr, 2005b, p. 105). The problem, however, is that Ecological Education is ill-equipped to achieve this aim.

Understanding ecologically has an emotional core. One’s knowledge about ecological processes and principles is made meaningful and personal by an emotional attachment to the natural world. One of the implications of this attachment is a sense of care or stewardship towards the Earth. We rarely acknowledge, however, that ecological understanding requires imagination, that it has, indeed, an emotional and imaginative core. Examination of the theory and practice of Ecological Education reveals this to be the case. Theorists in the field of Ecological Education are currently overlooking the importance of imagination for the development of ecological understanding. Bringing imagination to the core of Ecological Education theory and practice is what this book is all about.

The pedagogy offered in this book offers Ecological Education a resolution to the difficult situation in which it currently finds itself. On one hand Ecological Education programs strive to fulfill a mandated curriculum and on the other to fulfill the overarching goal of emotionally and imaginatively engaging students with their world. Despite what may, on the surface, seem like suitable pedagogical practices, current approaches to Ecological Education are ineffective when it comes to achieving this larger goal. Why? Because current Ecological Education pedagogy—at both theoretical and practical levels—pays little attention to the distinctive features of students’ emotional and imaginative lives. In true superhero fashion, I propose a pedagogy that can support both of these objectives; Imaginative Ecological Education offers a way to both teach the curriculum in meaningful ways and support ecological understanding.

A Sneak Peek

Come with me into an Imaginative Ecological Education classroom. Grade 8 students are emotionally and imaginatively engaged in a powerful story about a tiny creature: the hummingbird. The elegance, fearlessness and truly remarkable powers of flight of the first “Hummer” make for a really engaging story. (Who said bigger was necessarily better?). Did you know that hummingbirds’ wings beat between 70 and 80 times per second resulting in a flight speed of up to 48 kilometers per hour? These incredible fliers are the only birds that can hover, fly upside down, forwards, backwards, sideways, or up and down like an elevator. Several hummingbird species migrate from the tropics and Central America to the United States or Canada each year in non-stop flights of about 800 to 1000 kilometers. What fuels these fearless hummingbirds (who, I might add, fulfill their pollinating duties rain or shine when most insects lay low)? Well, in short, a lot of food. Hummingbirds require about two times their body weight in insects and nectar per day to make their flight possible. In human terms, that would mean that in order to meet the caloric needs of a metabolic rate like that of a hummingbird one would need to consume 155,000 calories a day (Bailey, 2004, p. 35). Supersize it!

Students learn about hummingbirds in ways that engage their bodies in meaningful ways. They are encouraged to employ their senses in observing the rhythms of the hummingbird, the great speed of its wings, the sound a bird’s wing movement creates, the directionality of its flight. They are given opportunities to become hummingbirds. They express in various ways, from this new perspective, what the world looks and feels like. They attempt the often unpredictable but entirely elegant dance of the hummingbirds they have studied, up then down, in, then up, down, out, then up and so on and on. They explore the musicality of the birds, playing with ways to recreate the music created by the rapidity of hummingbird wings in motion. Students are enlisted as hummingbird watchers in their local neighborhoods, backyards, or on school grounds. They may even become detectives; which super student sleuth will discover the first hummingbird? Once they notice a bird they may “adopt” it, researching more about this species. What makes this species unique? The hummingbird is a fearless flier—what makes a robin, blue jay, or crow unique? What is a hummingbird’s nest like? Students might create their own nests. They build their own hummingbird feeders and, through some research, figure out ways to make the school ground a more hospitable habitat for birds of various kinds. They become hummingbird experts, collecting as much information as they can about these magical fliers.

In learning about these amazing birds, the natural interdisciplinarity of the curriculum emerges. Students branch off and investigate the migration patterns of other birds they observe in their communities. This natural context connects to their studies of migration in the social studies curriculum. Their studies support learning in science about movement and, of course, flight. They learn about the unique beak of the hummingbird and about its suitability for pollination. From here they learn about the notion of adaptation and the relationship between form and function in nature. Pollination is used as an integrative theme for studying the ecological notion of interdependence and the various roles and responsibilities of members of the natural community. They study their bird species (directly and indirectly through internet and other resources) and use the information as a basis for work in the English curriculum. How have birds been incorporated into daily language? What does it mean when something is “for the birds” or if someone is said to have a “bird brain”? “Birds of a feather stick together” right?

Emotional and Imaginative Considerations

Blenkinsop (2005) comments that educational programs aimed at developing students’ relationships with nature “often bemoan what they perceive as limited change in those relationships by pointing to limited change in the students’ behavior” (p. 286). It is becoming increasingly clear that knowledge of ecological crises alone has not changed human behavior in any significant way. My own encounters with young people have clearly suggested that they seem disillusioned as to how ecological crises have anything to do with them (why bother recycling, Ms. J?). Students seem to be expressing a sense of disconnection with their environment despite increased ecological knowledge.

Why might this be the case? This book considers various possibilities. One possibility is that children’s experiences of nature are often vicarious. Rather than through direct experience, children in an increasingly urban/suburban world come to know nature through television, videos, books etc. So, while students are gaining a basic comprehension of what is going on (and going wrong) in the world, they may not be developing an emotional attachment to what they are learning and commonly have no commitment to do anything about it. We are also dealing with a marginalization of imagination in learning. Imagination has too often been understood crudely as something trivial or a frill of education rather than one of the great workhorses of learning required to develop an adequate Ecological Education program. Without imagination we cannot develop ecological understanding, and we will remain ill-equipped to envision alternative possibilities for human-world relationships and resolutions to ecological problems.Insight into how to improve the practice of Ecological Education can be found in Imaginative Education, a theory developed over the last three decades by Kieran Egan. Imaginative Education is a theory concerned with the centrality of emotion and imagination in effective learning. Egan (1992), drawing on White (1990), describes imagination as the “capacity to think of the possible rather than just the actual” (p. 4). Imagination takes us to the new, the unusual, and the extraordinary. It enables one to encounter the world from different perspectives and to experience different interpretations. With imagination we can, as Greene (1988) describes, “look beyond things as they are,…anticipate what might be seen through a new perspective or through another’s eyes” (p. 49). As we conceive of possibilities through imagination, we become emotionally engaged and connect value or significance to what we envision.

Think for a moment about how your emotions and imagination tend to work together. It is rare to experience or encounter something—an object or a process, for example—without having some emotional reaction to it. Consider the baby who falls into fits of giggles when he hears a popping sound. Consider your reaction upon seeing or hearing the baby giggling. Consider how the smell of a certain perfume or flower brings you back to a different time and place in which you have fond memories or, alternatively, negative associations. What these examples aim to show is that our emotions seem inextricably tied into our imaginations; when we imagine, we think and feel the possible.

Of course, imagination is shaped by one’s cultural contexts. In the Western industrial world, imagination is shaped by a specific understanding of nature, of the Earth, and of the rights and responsibilities of the human species. The kind of imagination that inspired the Industrial Revolution, among other great, but ecologically devastating changes, may not lead us into a sustainable era in human history. If we accept that imagination is culturally bound, and that current beliefs in the Western world about nature and about the human-nature relationship have contributed to the Earth’s ecological problems, then imagination informed by an understanding of human embeddedness in nature may be required to support more sustainable human-nature interactions. We are in need of imagination shaped by notions of relationship, connectedness, and context; we need an ecological conception of imagination.

In this book I conceive of ecological imagination as a flexibility of mind oriented to interdependence and pattern, to the diversity and complexity that characterize natural- and human-world relationships. This type of imaginative process is inspired by one’s emotional connection to the natural environment. It can support our understanding of society, culture, reality and the self in terms of relationship. Ecological imagination emerges out of students’ participation with the world through activities and learning opportunities in which their bodies, emotions, and imaginations are actively engaged. It seems urgent to expand the breadth, depth, and orientation of how we make sense of the world; we limit our abilities to deal with ecological problems now and in the future if we do not consider how we may educate the ecological imagination.


The book is divided into three parts. Part One describes what is currently going on and going wrong in Ecological Education. In Chapter One two examples of school-based Ecological Education programs are explored in some depth. These examples serve to both illustrate the nature of Ecological Education as well as reveal its main shortcomings. Chapter Two argues why Ecological Education is currently ill-suited for the task of developing ecological understanding. Part Two describes a new Ecological Education. Chapter Three describes Imaginative Education in depth, the theory around which a new, imaginative approach to Ecological Education will be based. Imaginative Education represents a very different approach to education; its applicability to Ecological Education has never been explored. Consideration of the central tenets of Imaginative Education, including notions of “cognitive tools” and “kinds of understanding,” creates as-yet unexplored possibilities for improving Ecological Education. Chapter Four outlines the central principles of Imaginative Ecological Education; both Ecological Education and Imaginative Education are changed as they come together. I outline a framework for Imaginative Ecological Education that maintains key features of Ecological Education but takes a new educational direction. While sharing with Ecological Education an emphasis on teaching students about the Earth and its processes in ways that enhance students’ sense of relatedness within human and non-human worlds, it couples all learning with emotional and imaginative engagement. It brings the development of imagination to the core of practice. It also centralizes the body in the learning process in a way that may enhance students’ sense of embeddedness in the natural world. The imaginative ecological educator will employ “new” cognitive tools in the development of ecological understanding. I argue that cognitive tools that develop students’ sense of place or sense of closeness with the natural world (what I call place-making cognitive tools) should be included along with the cognitive tools that Egan (1997) describes for Somatic, Mythic, and Romantic understandings. Imaginative ecological educators are offered toolkits for educating the imagination that they previously did not have; imaginative educators come away with enhanced toolkits for engaging students’ emotion and imagination in learning. Is a marriage of Imaginative Education and Ecological Education doomed from the start? Chapter Five describes some significant tensions between the two fields, considering if, indeed, the differences are irreconcilable. The possibilities that emerge when the fields come together are shown to outweigh possible conflicts. Part Three is devoted to detailed examples of Imaginative Ecological Education. Chapters Six and Seven examine planning templates suitable for students in elementary through secondary school and offer examples of how one might employ these in teaching. The book concludes with a chapter containing some thoughts and suggestions on how to become an imaginative ecological educator.

More On IEE Theory, Research & Curriculum Developments From Our Team:

Blenkinsop, S. (2014). In Search of the Eco-Teacher: Public School Edition.  Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 19 (1), 145-159.

  • This article explores some of characteristics and skills needed to be an eco-imaginative teacher in a public school setting.  These skills are not part of regular teacher training.

Blenkinsop, S. (2013).  Feature Article: An educational project for cultural change: Towards a place-based, imaginative, ecological ‘school’.  Education in the North, 20 (Special Issue), 116-119.

  • This article is a short description of the Maple Ridge Environmental School after its first year of existence.

Blenkinsop, S. (2013). Six Actions we can take towards a more Ecological, Holistic and Imaginative Education.  International Journal of Holistic Education, 1 (1), 33-55.

  • This article explores 6 key components necessary for an eco-imaginative education.

Blenkinsop, S.  (2012).  Four Slogans for Cultural Change: An Evolving Place-based,

Imaginative, and Ecological Learning Experience.  Journal of Moral Education, 41 (3), 353-368.

  • This article explores some of the challenges, moral implications, and key lynch-pins for supporting change at the Maple Ridge Environmental School.

Blenkinsop S., Fettes, M. & Kentel, J. (2014). Dark Matters: Turning Toward the Untouched, the Unheard, and the Unseen in Environmental Education. Canadian Journal Environmental Education, 19 (1), 5-17.

  • This article tries to point out some of the areas in need of further research.

Blenkinsop, S. & Judson, G. (2010). Storying environmental education. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 15 (1), 174-189.

  • This article is a “story” about the role of story in environmental education currently and its potential to contribute to student learning and engagement.

Blenkinsop, S. & Piersol, L. (2013).  Listening to the Literal: Orientations Towards

How Nature Communicates. Phenomenology and Practice, 7(1), 41-60.

  • This article arising out research done with several students at the Maple Ridge Environmental School explores some of the ontological implications of this work as students are clearing turning towards and listening to the natural world.

Derby, M. (2015) Place, Being, Resonance: A Critical Ecohermeneutic Approach to Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Derby, M., Piersol, L & Blenkinsop, S. (published online Jan 26th, 2015) Refusing to settle for pigeons and parks: urban environmental education in the age of neoliberalism.  Environmental Education Research.

  • This article troubles some of the easy assumptions surrounding environmental teaching in urban settings.

Derby, M., Blenkinsop, S., Piersol, L, Telford, J & M. Caulkins (2013). Towards Resonant, Imaginative Experiences in Ecological and Democratic Education. Democracy and Education, 21 (2), Article 10. Available at:

  • This article is a response to Fettes’s 2012 article: Imagination and Experience

Fettes, M. (2012). Imagination and experience:  An Integrative Framework. Democracy and education, 21 (1), (pp1-11).

Fettes. M. (2011). Senses and sensibilities: Educating the somatic imagination. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 27(2), 114-129.

Fettes, M. & Judson, G. (2011) Imagination and the cognitive tools of place-making. Journal of Environmental Education, 42 (2), pp. 123-135.

  • This article develops the notion of the place-making tool and how it may be incorporated into the teaching to fulfill mandated curriculum objectives and support student engagement in place.

Hadzigeorgiou, Y. et al. (2011). Teaching about the Importance of Trees: A Study With Young Children. Environmental Education Research, 17, 519-536.

  • This study reports on the effectiveness of storytelling with young children. The story that children were told was based on Egan’s (1997) theory, and more specifically on the notion of “mythic understanding”. There is evidence that children can better understand and remember ideas embedded in the plot of the story, when compared with a traditional method. There is also evidence that such a story (structured around binary opposites, mystery, mental imagery and a sense of wonder) can have an effect on children’s intention to participate in a tree-planting activity, when a comparison was made with the control (traditional) group and even within the same (storytelling) group.

Hadzigeorgiou, Y., & Skoumios, M. (2013). The development of environmental awareness through school science: Problems and possibilities. International Journal of Environmental and Science Education, 8 (3).

  • Discusses the problems inherent in the process of approaching the study of nature and the raising of environmental awareness through science, but also provides existing possibilities for doing so, among which is the power of storytelling, and more specifically the power of the story of the universe.

Haverluck, B. (2013) “ART & a NaTUre FUseD SociAL  AcTiVISm *#~~!”

  • A presentation made to the Manitoba Arts Council “Creative Roads” conference for professional artists who use the arts in working with schools and community groups, Winnipeg, Feb.21, 2013.

Jickling, B. (2009).  Sitting on an old grey stone:  Meditations on emotional Understanding.  In M. Mckenzie, P. Hart, H. Bai, and B. Jickling (Eds.), Fields of green: restorying culture, environment, and education.  Hampton Press: Cresskill, NJ, 163-173.

Jickling, B. (2004). Making Ethics an Everyday Activity: How Can We Reduce the Barriers? Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 9, 11-30.

Jickling, B., Lotz-Sisitka, H., O’Donoghue, R., Ogbuigwe, A. (2006). Environmental Education, Ethics, and Action: A Workbook to Get Started. Nairobi: UNEP.

Jickling, B., & Wals, A. E. J. (2008). Globalization and environmental education: Looking beyond sustainability and sustainable development. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40 (1), 1-21.

Judson, G. (Accepted). The Warp & Weft Of Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE): Teaching That Interweaves Curricular Topics, Human Emotion, The Body, & Place. Green Teacher.

  • This article describes the principles of IEE—Feeling, Activeness, and Place—through the metaphor of teaching as weaving.

Judson, G. (2015).  Re-Imagining sustainability education:  Emotional and imaginative engagement in learning.  In F. Kagawa & D. Selby (Eds.) Sustainability frontiers: Critical and transformative voices from the borderlands of sustainability education (pp. 205-220). Farmington Hills, MI: Barbara Budrich Publishers.

  • This book chapter considers what might be missing from the field of Education for Sustainability (EfS).  It suggests that if we want to support ecological understanding, we should pay much more pedagogical attention to sustaining wonder in education.

Judson, G. (2015). Supporting ecological understanding through imaginative and in-depth study of a place-based topic or issue. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 20.

  • This article indicates the pedagogical value of in-depth learning for ecological understanding and how this kind of learning can happen for students.

Judson, G. (2014). The role of mental imagery in imaginative and ecological teaching. Canadian Journal of Education, 37 (4), pp. 1-17. (*Direct link to article provided above)

Judson, G. (2012) A brief guide to Imaginative Ecological Education. (Available here:

  • This guide offers a quick look at the basic features of an imaginative and ecological approach to education.

Judson, G. (2012).  Engaging students’ imaginations in their world:  Some features of imaginative ecological education.  Canadian Association of Principals, Spring 2012, pp. 26-27.

  • This article offers a brief overview of the role imagination can and should play in an ecological approach to education.

Judson, G. (2010). Imaginative Ecological Education. In T. Nielson, R. Fitzgerald, & M. Fettes (Eds.), Imagination and Education: Imaginative practice, imaginative inquiry (pp. 272-292). Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

  • This book chapter gives a brief synopsis of the main principles of IEE including the discussion of specific examples.

Judson, G. (2010). Imagination in mind: Educating for ecological literacy. Seminar Series Paper 198 (September 2010). Melbourne: Centre for Strategic Education.

  • This monograph considers the nature of ecological literacy and how we might more effectively develop it in schools. Examples are provided.

Piersol, L. (2014).  Listening place. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 17 (2), 43-53.

  • This study aimed to explore the relationship to place that exists amongst members of a university education research team. The principle questions that guided the study were: What lessons can be learned from a space of ‘deep listening’ in place? And what might this offer to our lived experiences and understandings of outdoor and ecological education? Six themes emerged from the interviews based on what the participants deemed to be important in the process of listening to place and strengthening ecological relations. This paper explores each theme and shares possible implications for the field of outdoor education.

Piersol, L. (2013). Our hearts leap up:  Awakening wonder within the classroom. In A. Cant, K. Egan, and G. Judson (Eds.) Wonder-full education:  The centrality of wonder to science, mathematics, humanities, and arts teaching.  (Routledge:  New York.)

  • Ever heard of a pseudoscorpion? They exist under your feet right now! Did you know that the organisms in a handful of soil outnumber the amount of people on this planet? Find out more in this paper which argues that ‘wonder’ is an essential pedagogical tool with the potential to open up new ways of knowing and being in the world.

Piersol, L. (2011).  Storytelling with Shannon Stewart, a Vancouver poet, Cleveland Elementary

  • In March 2011, local poet Shannon Stewart and ecological educator Laura Piersol teamed up to do an ecological storytelling residency in Cleveland Elementary School in North Vancouver. Check out this blog to explore the unique and imaginative literary works the students produced as they were encouraged to wonder and wander in their local wild spaces.