Skip to main content

Ecological Identity, Empathy, and Experiential Learning: A Young Child's Explorations of a Nearby River

  • Chloe Humphreys (a1) and Sean Blenkinsop (a1)

This article uses an unconventional format to explore the role of parent and nature and the development of a young child's ecological identity. It follows journal entries from a mother observing her young son, Julian, as he explores, interacts with, and learns from the Stawamus River on the west coast of British Columbia. By creating questions, discussing and analysing these written observations, we explore the role of parenting and nature and the implications this might have for environmental education. Some of the ideas explored in this article include early ecological identity, empathy, relational existence, experiential learning, and affordances in the natural world. We further suggest that nature and parent working together might become key educators for a child.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Sean Blenkinsop, Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive Burnaby, BC, Canada V5A 1S6. Email:
Hide All
Abram, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. Toronto: Vintage Books.
Baker, M. (2005). Landfullness in adventure-based programming: Promoting reconnection to the land. Journal of Experiential Education, 27, 267276
Beery, T.H., & Wolf-Watz, D. (2014). Nature to place: Rethinking the environmental connectedness perspective. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 40, 198205.
Blenkinsop, S., Telford, J., & Morse, M. (2016b). A surprising discovery: Five pedagogical skills outdoor and experiential educators have to offer more mainstream educators in this time of change. Journal Adventure Education and Outdoor Leadership, 16, 346358.
Blenkinsop, S., Telford, J., Nolan, C., Hunt, J., & Stonehouse, P. (2016a). The lecture as experiential education: The cucumber in 17th century Flemish art. Journal of Experiential Education, 39, 101114.
Blenkinsop, S., & Morse, M. 2017. Saying yes to life: The search for the rebel teacher. In Jickling, R. & Sterling, S. (Eds.), Post-sustainability and environmental education: Remaking education for the future (pp. 4961). London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bowie, L. (2000). Is there a place for death education in the primary curriculum? Pastoral Care in Education, 18, 2226.
Brookes, A. (2003a). A critique of neo-Hahnian outdoor education theory. Part one: Challenges to the concept of ‘character building’. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 3, 4962.
Brookes, A. (2003b). A critique of neo-Hahnian outdoor education theory. Part two: ‘The fundamental attribution error’ in contemporary outdoor education discourse. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 3, 119132.
Broom, C. (2017). Exploring the relations between childhood experiences in nature and young adults’ environmental attitudes and behaviours. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 33, 3447.
Bundy, A.C., Naughton, G. Tranter, P., Wyver, S., Baur, L., Schiller, W., . . . Brentnall, J. (2011). The Sydney playground project: popping the bubblewrap - unleashing the power of play: a cluster randomized controlled trial of a primary school playground-based intervention aiming to increase children's physical activity and social skills. BMC Public Health, 11, 680
Carson, R. (1998). Sense of wonder. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Carver, A., Timperio, A., & Crawford, D. (2008). Playing it safe: The influence of neighbourhood safety on children's physical activity—A review. Health and Place, 14, 217227.
Chawla, L. (2007). Childhood experiences associated with care for the natural world: A theoretical framework for empirical results. Children, Youth and Environments, 17, 144170.
Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of nature contact for children. Journal of Planning Literature, 30, 433452.
Chawla, L., & Derr, V. (2012). The development of conservation behaviors in childhood and youth. In Clayton, S. (Ed.), Oxford handbook of environmental and conservation psychology (pp. 527555). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Clarke, D.A., & Mcphie, J. (2014). Becoming animate in education: Immanent materiality and outdoor learning for sustainability. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 14, 198216.
Corbishley, P. (1995). A parish listens to its children. Children's Environments, 12, 414426.
Doyle, S. (1989). Preparing for bereavement: A primary-school topic. Education and Health, 7, 7680.
Elkind, D. (1988). Miseducation: Preschoolers at risk. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Gibson, E., & Pick, A. (2000). An ecological approach to perceptual learning and development. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Gibson, J.J. (1979/1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Gurholt, K. P. (2014). Joy of nature, ‘Friluftsliv’ education and self: Combining narrative and cultural-ecological approaches to environmental sustainability. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 14, 233246.
Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of a nature. New York, NY: Routledge.
Heft, H. (2001). Ecological psychology in context: James Gibson, Roger Baker, and the legacy of William James's radical empiricism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Holland, J. (1997). Coping with bereavement: A handbook for teachers. Cardiff, UK: Cardiff Academic Press.
Honig, A.S. (2015). Experiencing nature with young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Hussein, H. (2012). The influence of sensory gardens on the behaviour of children with special educational needs. Procedia — Social and Behavioral Sciences, 38, 343354.
Husserl, E. (1958). Ideas general introduction to pure phenomenology. G.W.R. Boyce (trans.). New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.
Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. Oxford, UK: Routledge.
Joldersma, C. (2018). Earth juts into world: An earth ethics for ecologizing philosophy of education. Educational Theory. Advance online publication.
Kong, L. (2000). Nature's dangers, nature's pleasures. Urban children and the natural world In Holloway, S.L & Valentine, G. (Eds.), Children's geographies. Playing, living, learning (pp. 257271). London: Routledge.
Kupetz, B., & Twiest, M. (2000). Nature, literature, and young children: A natural combination. Young Children, 55, 5963.
Kytta, M. (2004). The extent of children's independent mobility and the number of actualized affordances as criteria of a child-friendly environment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 179198.
Mikaels, J., & Asfeldt, M. (2017). Becoming-crocus, becoming-river, becoming-bear: A relational exploration of place (s). Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 20, 213.
Miles, J.C. (1986-87). Wilderness as learning place. Journal of Environmental Education, 18, 3340.
Nisbet, E.K., Zelenski, J.M., & Murphy, S.A. (2009). The nature relatedness scale: Linking individuals’ connection with nature to environmental concern and behavior. Environment and Behavior, 41, 715740.
Nussbaum, M.C. (2011). Creating capabilities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pearce, J.S. (1992). Magical child: Rediscovering nature's plan for our children. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Pelo, A. (2013). The goodness of rain: Developing and early ecological identity in young children. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press.
Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.
Rice, C., & Torquati, J. (2013). Assessing connections between young children's affinity for nature and their experiences in natural outdoor settings in preschools. Children, Youth and Environments, 23, 78102.
Roberts, J. (2008). From experience to neo-experiential education: Variations on a theme. Journal of Experiential Education, 31, 1935.
Sebba, R. (1991). The landscapes of childhood: The reflection of childhood environment in adult memories and in children's attitudes. Environment and Behavior, 23, 395422.
Sitka-Sage, M., Kopnina, H., Blenkinsop, S., & Piersol, L. (2017). Rewilding education in troubled times: Or, getting back to the wrong post-nature. Visions of Sustainability, 8, 2037.
Sobel, D. (2003). Assessing ice: A father's and daughter's coming of age. In Piper, P.S. & Tag, S. (Eds.), Father Nature. Fathers as guides to the natural world (American Land and Life Series). Iowa, IA: University of Iowa Press.
Staudacher, C. (1987). Beyond grief: A guide for recovering from the death of a loved one. London: Souvenir Press.
Taylor, A., & Pacini-Ketchabaw, V. (2015). Learning with children, ants, and worms in the Anthropocene: Toward a common world pedagogy of multispecies vulnerability. Pedagogy, Culture, and Society, 23, 507529.
Wells, R. (1988). Helping children cope with grief: Facing a death in the family. London: Sheldon Press.
Wilson, R. (1993). Fostering a sense of wonder during the early childhood years. Columbus, OH: Greyden.
Wilson, R. (2012). Nature and young children: Encouraging creative play and learning in natural environments. New York: Routledge.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Australian Journal of Environmental Education
  • ISSN: 0814-0626
  • EISSN: 2049-775X
  • URL: /core/journals/australian-journal-of-environmental-education
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed