Methods in Bioregional Education

by Frank Traina

Central Ohio River Bioregion

This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.

This chapter deals with how a bioregional perspective influences the education of young children. It notes some differences in content and method between bioregional education and mainstream environmental education.

How do the methods and techniques of bioregional education differ from those of mainstream environmental education? Some of the difference has to due with content. For example, the way one teaches about the Earth as a living organism is different from teaching about it as a non-living thing following mechanical laws. Some of the difference has to do with emphasis, for example, in bioregional education a personal relationship with nature is of primary importance especially as it includes a sense of caring. And some of the difference has to do with style: bioregional education stresses the oral tradition over the written one, the real over the abstract, the whole together with the parts, the parts as they are nested into the whole.

Bioregionalism Emphasizes the Study of Place

In its effort to produce a broad minded, liberal, cosmopolitan, educated person modem education introduces pupils to the wider world—to other languages and cultures, to global topics, and to abstract thinking. These are important, yet in the process something else is lost—a sense of place and knowledge about that place. According to David Orr, “Other than as a collection of buildings where learning is supposed to occur, place has no particular standing in contemporary education…Nor are you likely to find many courses offering enlightenment to modem scholars in the art of living well in a place.” (Ecological Literacy, 1992: 126). A sense of balance has been lost and with it a sense of the real.

The bioregional quiz, “Where You At?” (in Chapter 2) is a good example of getting oriented to local natural place—the fundamental bioregional idea. The method here is simple, help children learn their basic connections to nature by asking the basic questions: Where does my water come from? Where does my food come from? Where does my garbage and waste go? Who are the animals and plants that I share this natural place with? What are the seasons like in this place? From which direction does the wind and change of weather come from? Exploring such topics connects us immediately to our place, especially when tied in with field trips to important outdoor sites in the local area. This hopefully will help in developing a sense of caring. As C.A. Bowers writes, “Learning about one’s bioregion may contribute to what often is missing in the modem person’s relationship to the environment: a sense of care that comes out of experiencing the connectedness within one’s bioregion.” (Education, Cultural Myths, and the Ecological Crisis, 1993: 176).

Learning Exercises
  1. Have your students try to describe how to get from one point to another, say, from home to school or from the center of town to home, etc., using only natural forms like a creek, a river, a hill, a forest or tree, a field, a bush, and so forth.
  2. Define a local, natural area around your town, city, or county (your bioregion) that would be large enough to sustain the people within with food, water, energy, etc. and pretend that the rest of the world has disappeared. What foods could you grow and what foods could you not grow (and therefore not eat)? When would certain foods be available to eat and when would others not be? Where would your water come from? Where would your energy come from?
  3. Have your class take the bioregional quiz, “Where You At?’’ Then have them research the correct answers. Add more questions to the list and find out the answers.
  4. Have your class map its own bioregion. What would be its natural boundaries?
Bioregional Education Brings in the Emotions

Conceptual content is only one aspect of bioregional education that also emphasizes developing values and feelings about our homeplace. This emphasis is even more pronounced than that found in general environmental education. “A particular feature of environmental learning is its close identification with outside-the-classroom phenomena (which) typically concentrates on affective, rather than cognitive, objectives and methods.” (Lisowski and Disinger, 1991:19).

The Bioregional Education Committee in 1988 won a consensus (i.e. unanimous) approval from the 300 participants of the North American Bioregional Congress for its resolution, “Bioregional education validates and nurtures bonding between the individual and the planet through sensory, emotional, spiritual and intellectual channels.” (Proceedings, 1989: 61) Bonding refers to the building of a personal relationship, and in any personal relationship there must be feelings of connectedness and emotions.

The fundamental problem is not the modern person’s lack of knowledge about nature but the lack of respectful values and feelings about nature. Modem industrial culture treats nature as a “resource”—something to be used by humans for their benefit. We don’t treat our family members, our brothers and sisters, as a “resource” to be used up for our personal benefit. Rather, we treat them as individuals important and dear to us. Native peoples see natural things as “relations”, that is, as family members to be loved and respected. For example, when being “reborn” after leaving a Sweat Lodge, Native Americans say, “Greetings to all my relations”—meaning a hello to all the things of nature: to plants, animals, and the elements of air, fire, earth, and water. Our relations have value in themselves, an intrinsic value, whereas “resources” are things that have value that we give to them as we need them.

One does not have a personal relationship with a “resource”, nor does one respect a resource in its own right. This objectification of nature as a resource brings on the destruction of nature and with it the destruction of Earth. Having been raised in a culture which treats natural things as resources, we have to unlearn this attitude and learn another, and we have to help ourselves and others learn a different way of relating to nature—one that is in agreement with the objective facts of science but also permits a subjective personal relationship. In many ways this is breaking new cultural ground. It is a different perspective than infusing “spirits” in the wind, rain, creeks, animals and plants as done in the religious form known as “animism.” Yet it is also different from treating the wind, rain etc. as resources to be used. The task of contemporary people to regain the ability to personally relate to the natural world may be the most critical task of modem culture. Bioregional approaches in this endeavor may offer some major assistance. Some kind of synthesis is emerging which draws upon the perspectives of animism, monotheism, and science. Some of this is evident in what is termed “ecological psychology.”

The method of bioregional education is to bring back romance into our relationship with nature. In this respect it can be viewed as a reaction against the cold scientific treatment of nature which sets nature apart from the human. Bioregional education puts the human back in the proper natural context. With this perspective children learn that they have links with Earth which sustain them on a daily basis. They breath in Earth’s gases and give gases back to Earth. They take material from Earth as nutrients and give material back to Earth as “waste” that is really a nutrient to other life forms. These links can be compared with the links our organs have to our body. The body, for example, keeps the stomach alive. If the stomach were to be separated from the body it would die. If we were to be separated from Earth, we would also die. In this sense Earth is our real body.

Learning Exercises
  1. Have an anniversary celebration (party, festival, event) concerning some significant event in Earth history: the time the first life appeared in the oceans, the time the first photosynthesis took place, the time the first oxygen-using life appeared, the time the first plants or animals appeared on land, the time the first mammals appeared, and so forth.
  2. Have a goodbye party (kind of sad) for the animals or plants that have become extinct: the dinosaurs, the dodo bird, the auroch, etc. Use combinations and variations of this theme. It is also a chance for students to research these animals and plants. Bring in fossils of extinct life.
  3. Demonstrate our connections with other life by doing a breathing exercise whereby the students breath in air which used to be in another animal or plant and then blow to specific animals or plants our air. Let the students select the animals or plants whose air we breathe and which will breathe our air. The same can be done with water which never is made or destroyed on Earth, but it continually going in and out of us, and in and out of all living things. Air and water are the major connectors. The water which used to be in the dinosaurs is now in us.
Bioregional Education Is Concerned With the Everyday Things of Life

Bioregional education is a restatement of the obvious, because somehow our culture with its ever increasing specialization has lost sight of the basic and the obvious. For example, an important bioregional technique is to emphasize that people live inside of planet Earth and not merely on planet Earth. Besides being more scientifically accurate, this image helps connect us more to Earth. We are inside of Earth like the stomach is inside us. We are surrounded by Earth, we are joined to Earth. The image is one of a living thing inside of another living thing, and as much part of it as a human cell is part of the human body.

Some environmental educators are concerned with how to bring nature into the lives of urban or suburban children. Bioregional education starts with the children and shows how they are connected to the Earth in so many ways. The children breathe; the children eat; they drink; they are held to the Earth through gravity; they need animals and plants as clothes—even oil-based clothing came from animals and plants originally; they urinate and defecate. These represent tangible examples of connections to the Earth and all of nature. We are also connected through the physical and biological history which preceded us. Children need oxygen to breathe. Our genes dictate this as they dictate that we will not be 20 feet tall and will not be covered with feathers, or be colored green. This is nature, this is wildness. And it is within us as well as without us. It is part of our daily life. And the things of our daily life are also related to the Earth and its well-being. As an education resolution passed by the bioregional congress of 1988 states, “Bioregional education shows us how our daily actions and those of our society affect the health of the Earth community.” (Proceedings, 1989: 61)

This focus on daily life allows bioregional education to bridge the gap between environmental pollution issues and those of wilderness and wildness. It brings closer to children and adults the ways in which their daily lifestyle choices impact their local natural place, more distant bioregions and the global ecosystem.

Bioregional Education Sees Earth as a Living Entity

The method of bioregional education is to see Earth as a living organism of which we are inside and part of. Moreover, while a few bioregionalists can only accept this image as metaphor, most seem to accept it as literally true and regard Gaia (as many people call the living Earth) as real as their own bodies. A resolution passed by the 1988 bioregional congress states, “Bioregional education proceeds from the premise that Earth is a community of entities that form a living organism of which we are part.” (Proceedings, 1989:61) The scientific debate on whether the Earth is “alive” or not depends on one’s definition of “life.” Everyone does agree that if Earth is truly alive, it is not alive in the same sense that animals or humans are alive. Our attempts towards a conscious experience of the totality of a living Earth could be compared with a single human cell’s ability to understand the totality of a human body with trillions of cells unified into numerous organs and parts to make a whole. In other words, the complexity of the living Earth leaves us in awe.

Feeling that Earth is a living planet of which we are part does much to convey feelings of closeness to nature. Again, with some teachers it may be a strong metaphor and with others a biological reality. Another expression of this organic unity of Earth and even of the cosmos is the idea of the natural world as a “Great Dance.” This expression is found among Native American traditions, in fact, seeing the processes and things of the natural world as a dance, rhythm or cycle is found among many native peoples in all lands. Bioregional methods can use both tools—the Great Dance and the Living Earth—to better convey the idea of an Earth unity or family and our participation in it.

When such tools are used by educators with a bioregional perspective the connections between the local bioregion and the larger Earth processes are often mentioned in the presentation. This most commonly happens when animals and plants are brought into the exercise since, among bioregionalists, awareness and knowledge and reverence for the local animal and plant life is more common than allusions to distant ones. Establishing special relationships with the local life forms and, for that matter, with non-living forms as well (mountains, rivers, lakes, soil, rock strata, etc.) is characteristically found in the bioregional perspective—this love of the local natural place.

Learning Exercises
  1. Just as a human body develops over time and passes through different stages: birth, early childhood, later childhood, adolescence, middle age, old age, death; so does the Earth have different ages. Discuss the various ages of Earth history. Celebrate the different ages. Have projects built around the different periods.
  2. Discuss the concept of nests within nests. Have the students draw circles and identify how they are nested.
  3. Aliens want to visit you and you need to give them directions based on the Earth’s topography to reach you from outer space. What do you tell them?
  4. What is the Earth Community? (Use Earth Family with younger children.) Who belongs to it?
  5. Discuss and have the students write about what would happen to the Earth Community if all the humans were to suddenly disappear. Compare this with what would happen if all the insects, or microbes, or flowers were to suddenly disappear. (Hint: the Earth Community would be devastated if insects disappeared, but would increase if the humans disappeared.) The point of this exercise is not to hate humans, but to show that humans are only one equal part of the natural world, not the top or most important part.
Use of Earth, Air, Fire, Water

In trying to develop a young child’s relationship with the Earth and the natural world that goes beyond the mere naming of things, some bioregionalists have found it helpful to draw upon the ancient wisdom of the past which divided the world into four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. No one is denying the periodic chart, but it is hard to sing songs about all the chemical elements, whereas it is much easier to sing about four. “The earth, the air, the fire, the water—return, return, return,” goes one Native American song heard frequently around campfires and in sweat lodges. “Greetings! Earth, air, fire water,” is a short hello to the elements of nature. The four elements are the stuff of songs and poetry, and their ancient formulation connects us with our human past as well.

Encouraging Long Term Thinking

As science tells us more and more about how nature works and how the elements of nature have evolved over the last 15 billion years—how atoms evolved, how molecules evolved, how life forms evolved and how galaxies evolved—we come to understand in more depth how nature operates on the long term. Any approach which attempts at promoting an ecologically sustainable culture would by necessity encourage people to adopt a long term perspective. It is said that some Native Americans when considering matters before council would also take into account the effects of their decisions on their own people seven generations in the future.

Many environmental problems today are the result of short term thinking which is a reflection of an economic and cultural system based on the short term. The value of long term thinking is appreciated by the more wealthy in our society who plan for long term investments in an attempt to see their personal wealth increase over the long run. Yet the “long run” here is still very short, only decades, not hundreds or thousands of years which is what an ecologically oriented society would have to plan for.

One of the most important concepts which everyone in an ecologically sustainable society would be familiar with is exponential growth. This is how living populations grow, including human populations. Even when the rate of population growth is constant, the absolute numbers added on to the growing population keeps increasing because the base population size (to which the rate of growth is applied) is increasing.

The significant point here is that a small rate of growth yields a small increase when the population base is small, but over time the population base becomes large and a small rate of growth will give us a large numerical increase, that is, 3 percent of 1,000 is 30, but 3 percent of one million is 30,000. Exponential growth can sneak up on us because it involves a doubling of the population over a certain period of time. At one percent growth a population doubles in size every seventy years. At two percent it doubles every thirty-five years and so on. One way to show this is to use the example of a pond filling up with weeds. If the amount of weeds in the pond doubles every day and if it takes thirty days to completely fill up, when is the pond half full of weeds? The answer is on the twenty-ninth day.

From the long term perspective even a population growth rate of one percent a year is very high if a region finds it unsustainable to have its human population double every 70 years.

Learning Exercises
  1. The sense of smell is a powerful learning tool for realizing that living things don’t have hard boundaries. Even people, with our weak sense of smell, do smell things. Blindfold students and let them smell objects without touching them to identify them. For example, fruits, foods, flowers, grass clippings, etc. Animals have a very intense sense of smell. How and why do things give off an odor?
  2. Trace back the food we eat to the sun and the Earth. Then trace back the Solar System to Tiamet (the extinct sun which exploded to give us the elements now making up the sun and the Earth) to the original “Flaring Forth” or “Big Bang” 20 billion years ago. We are physically connected to the first moment of the universe.
  3. The above exercise also is used to answer the question of why we can be called “the stuff of stars.”
Experiencing the Connections in the Web of Life

At the end of most North American Bioregional Congress there is held an “All Species Ball.” The congress participants come to the ball dressed as other species in the Earth family. This atmosphere of celebration and theater is widespread in the bioregional movement which is trying to get people to pay attention to and respect the other lifeforms on the Earth. At the Fourth Bioregional Congress in Maine in 1990 there was a colorful sign hanging from the trees near the general assembly area. It read, “Greetings to all our tail-less relations” and on the sign were painted many animal tails. The sign was a welcome greeting to the humans from the many animals with tails. It was an attempt to look at the humans from the animals’ perspective. To the animals we are the “tail-less ones.” The native peoples speak of the humans as the “two-leggeds.” This is how the four legged animals would see us. The idea here is to take on the perspective of other species. This type of theater makes for a powerful learning experience.

There are many valuable games in the environmental education field which help children learn about nature. One exercise used at Sunrock Farm for young children is based on a simplified version of the Native American medicine wheel. The children gather around a circle of small rocks with a large rock in the center. It is explained to them that circles of stones were one way in which native peoples taught their children important things about the Earth. The large stone in the middle of the circle represents the sun which is very important to all living things. (Other facts about the sun and its role are sometimes presented here.) Each stone in the circle represents an animal or plant which is part of the Earth family. Each child picks up a stone and holds it. Starting with the instructor, each person tells the group what animal or plant they have decided to become and the stone they hold represents that species and then they place the stone back in the circle. “This stone represents all the rabbits which live on Planet Earth” and so on. Before starting someone from the group volunteers to represent the humans. “I am a human and this stone represents all the humans on the Earth.” The circle of stones represents the Earth family, and the humans are part of this family. At the end all the stones are once again in the circle. In a sense we are building a planet around the sun. A planet full of animals and plants. Everyone then claps for the animals and plants in the Earth family and we go on to another activity. The Guide for Teaching at Sunrock Farm offers a number of similar exercises which attempt to facilitate feelings of closeness and unity with the natural world. The instructor’s manual reads,

The philosophy behind much of the program at Sunrock Farm draws heavily from the thoughts of Thomas Berry: ‘It seems evident that human life, at present, in the industrial world is structured according to individual and social values strictly limited to the human species…We have become…autistic in relation to other species.’

At Sunrock Farm children personally meet a few of their Earth-family members, and they do things with them. The farm experience is rich in sensory and emotional contact. They milk a goat, bottle feed kids, touch the pigs, feed goats and cattle, gather eggs, handle chicks, plant seeds, eat and smell plants, and so on. This is done safely and with joy. While it may look like we are merely entertaining the children, we are actually introducing them to other members of the Earth community. For most of our visitors this may be the very first time they have ever met a real pig, cow, chicken, goose, sheep, goat, turkey, and our friends the (living) vegetables. And unlike a visit to the Zoo, here they can get to know the animals and plants in a more personal way.

The farmers (staff) need to keep up the interest of the children, but they should not get in the way of the communication between the children and the animals or plants. Here a mature sense of balance is necessary. At times it is best for the farmers to say nothing, but to only monitor how the children are relating to the animal or plant. When the children grow bored then it is time to speak and move on.

A farm tour helps to develop what Thomas Berry calls ‘inter-species bonding.’ Sharing nature with children, he says, ‘could quite simply be established as a context for education at the elementary level since children are naturally drawn to delight in the larger society of the natural world.’ But the bonding with other species is different from the bonding with other fellow humans. It is similar yet different. (Berry writes, ‘Bonding in this sense is not a univocal but rather an analogous concept…’)(sic)

For tens of thousands of years people related to animals and plants as family members. In the past few hundred years we have lost this feeling and the killing of the Earth is the result. Now it is time for humans to recapture this sense of closeness with animals and plants. If this is not done the destruction of the Earth will continue until it can go no further.

(Guide to Teaching at Sunrock Farm, 1989)

Learning the Things We Need to Know

Bioregional education strives to help people to learn what they need to know in order to live in a place in an ecologically sustainable way. A way which will help heal and restore the area and not merely prevent further natural deterioration. This learning must also lead to caring and acting to restore the natural area. The learning is both general and specifically bioregional in focus. In general terms, as David Orr put it,

It is to know magnitudes, rates, and trends of population growth, species extinction, soil loss, deforestation, desertification, climate change, ozone depletion, resource exhaustion, air and water pollution, toxic and radioactive contamination, resource and energy use—in short the vital signs of the planet and its ecosystems. (1992: 93)

In specific terms we must deal with real plants and animals in real time in real places. “Real places are not uniform, but break down immediately into a wonderful array of microsystems and microclimates, each of which mediates and modifies toward eccentric behavior on the part of living things within them.” (House, 1990: 47). Real places are what is actually around us and this means the local, natural place. By gathering data about the local bioregion one Northwest group was surprised at the energy this released toward activities aimed at restoring the bioregion to its more natural condition. Their efforts at restoration uncovered a lot of what they needed to know to actually live integrated lives in living places.

Group projects involving habitat preservation for a certain species have helped people learn more about the development of restorative methods useful in resource-related industries. To have an ecologically sustainable society we must have restorative methods used in industry: We will need a restorative agriculture with no loss of topsoil, but a net gain instead. We need a restorative timber and mining industry. In restoration, not only are pollution and depletion halted, but the resource itself is physically repaired, and, if necessary, its missing components are replaced. The beaver, the turkey, the bison, the wolf is brought back. As are native trees, bushes and other flora.

Restoration is an effort to imitate nature in all its artistry and complexity by taking a degraded system and making it more diverse and productive. It is a tremendous learning tool for bioregional awareness. However, some bioregionalists object to having people do much to alter nature’s wild plans for an area. Believing, “Nature knows best.” all bioregional groups involved in restoration projects would also agree with Freeman House, “Approach the planet as the planet reveals itself. Ecological restoration must be approached contextually, bioregionally, within the boundaries of natural systems, ecosystems and watersheds.” (1990: 47)

Learning Exercises

  1. Locate a group of citizens in your area who are involved in a restoration project and have you class help them in some way.
  2. Have the entire class, a group of students, or each student adopt an endangered species of animal or plant which is native to your region and research its habitat needs, and try to discover why it is endangered. Try to have the class come up with solutions leading to the preservation of the species in the region.
  3. Have the students draw up a chart of the natural processes going on in the local region showing how everything is interconnected. Damage to one process leads to damage to other processes. Clear cut logging leads to soil erosion which silts up creeks and streams which endangers fish in the streams. To solve one problem we must look at other problems.

Bowers, C. A. 1993. Education, Cultural Myths, and the Ecological Crisis. Albany. State University of New York Press.

Lisowski, M., and J.F. Disinger. 1991. “The Effect of Field-Based Instruction on Student Understandings of Ecological Concepts.” Journal of Environmental Education 23(1): 19-23.

Milbrath, L. W. 1989. Envisioning a Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way Out. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Orr, David W. 1992. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a
Postmodern World.
Albany: State University of New York Press.

Orr, David W. 1994. Earth in Mind: On Education. Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Proceedings of the North American Bioregional Congress. 1989. Third North American Bioregional Congress. August 21-26, 1988 in Paradise Valley. British Columbia. Canada. Planet Drum Foundation. San Francisco.

Roszak, Theodore, et al. editors. 1995. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Farmer” Frank Traina (1943-2014) was an educator and writer. After earning his PhD in sociology from Cornell, he moved to Kentucky to teach at Northern Kentucky University, but ended up devoting himself instead to the farm he purchased in Wilder, KY in 1978. Sunrock Farm hosted educational programs that “raised consciousness,” serving mostly Cincinnati-area children. About 25,000 people visited annually for decades. Farmer Frank also published Pollen, a journal of the North American Bioregional Congress Bioregional Education Committee.

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