Stewardship vs. Kinship

colourful wildflowers in a field

Parts of this segment are from the full version of an article I wrote called: Theorizing a policy ecosystem for licensed childcare forest school within the anthropocene (unpublished). Since it was written for my Masters in Educational Studies, it may come across as slightly more academic in tone than the other posts in my blog. I hope it raises interesting points for discussion, and educators will find it to be a useful framing of children and educators living in the anthropocene.

For decades environmental educators have grappled with how to educate the next generation to address the loss of biodiversity and increasing toxicity of the environment based on human activity. Now, some are drawing attention to the Anthropocene as an opportunity to acknowledge that the way we have been teaching about human impacts has not worked. Rather than a generation of conscious environmentalists who tread lightly on the earth, we have unprecedented rates of anxiety and depression, no doubt a result of the grief they have experienced throughout their lives. Certainly, the Anthropocene “invokes visions of universal risk and vulnerability wherein everyone is implicated. Yet everyone is too often depicted as white and middle class, erasing the complex and intertwined histories of colonialism and capitalism that manifest in present-day issues of inequality and social/environmental justice” (Dunway, as cited in Lakind & Adsit-Morris, 2018, p. 31). Anthropocene could instead be used as an educational framework that moves beyond Western epistemologies (or, the theories of knowledge) that have proven completely unable to break down a perceived divide between nature/culture.

Environmental educators have perhaps over-emphasized the role of outdoor experiences and unstructured play with their role to become stewards, and save the world. By situating children as agents of change, we put them in an impossible, yet essential position of needing to fix something that is broken. This reinforces ideas of humans being able to overcome large challenges with their will and effort. “It is always about us – humans to the rescue” (Taylor, 2016, p. 1454). If we spend more time pedagogically exploring our connections with more-than-human worlds, we can develop opportunities to move beyond understanding the world through Euro-Western binary divisions, such as nature/culture (Nxumalo et al. 2018, 439). By unlearning old Eurocentric habits of thought, and paying renewed attention to our interconnectedness with the world, including valuing Indigenous perspectives, we can shift from a stewardship approach toward one of kinship with the more-than-human world.

Child-centered pedagogy has become a shared practice in the Early Years sector in order to provide responsive, engaging learning opportunities that are relevant and meaningful to children. Rather than centring the child alone, however, we can observe and discuss the child in relation to the place in which they learn and play, the materials they engage with each day, and remain acutely aware of the relationships they are actively developing in the world around them (Taylor, 2016, p. 1456), including those with the more-than-human world. “The challenge now, is to learn how to inherit and inhabit damaged worlds by pursuing recuperative responses in tandem with other species” being open to thinking more deeply about how we change and are changed by other living beings (Taylor, 2016, p. 1454). Since it is impossible for us to live separate lives from ‘nature’ we must challenge ourselves to let go of decades of Western ideology that has taught us that nature is something we can overcome. “We are not manager, engineers, or stewards of a passive earth, nor are we the unwanted detritus of a morally righteous planet. We are entangled in an assemblage of collective vulnerability” (Lakind & Adsit-Morris, 2018, p. 36). By centring this shared vulnerability and making pedagogical choices that remain humbly connected to our place within nature, and by bringing out stories about the land that remain at the surface, just beyond the obvious ones we tell every day, we can shift the child understand their role in the world around them, and to foster relationships of respect, relationship, reciprocity and responsibility, as Bell and many others refer to as the 4Rs (Bell, 2013). This philosophical shift is one way to live in treaty relationship, as it values Indigenous knowledge alongside Western knowledge, and helps to break down the nature/culture binary that has led us to the anthropocene.