Book review: Children, Citizenship and Environment

by Jeff  Thurston

Children and young adults today are faced with a multitude of voices, news and challenges that confront them daily. They must be equipped to understand, act upon and to develop alternate possibilities and pathways that allow them to move through and act effectively during these times. To achieve that, adults, educators, technology professionals, politicians and others have responsibilities, and how they go about helping a younger generation to meet these objectives and to live more fully and sustainably requires new approaches.Author Bronwyn Hayward has developed such an approach that she labels ‘SEEDS’ – a model of ecological citizenship education (Social agency, Environmental Education, Embedded justice, Decentred deliberative democracy and Self transcendence).

“If we wish to broaden children’s imagination about the possibilities and opportunities for agency beyond thin environmental visions for technocratic entrepreneurs and green consumers operating in the market, we need to think seriously about the conditions in which children grow up, form their ideas, and learn to exercise their will,” Hayward says.

The author examines students at nine schools in New Zealand with a myriad of questions to learn about their sense of citizenship, participation and ideas that involve social, economic and environmental factors. Interestingly, the interviews revealed a low sense of ‘brandedness’ in New Zealand. By comparison, children in the United States can riddle off 300 or more brands of products that they often know details about. It is this observation that leads to such beliefs, such as, whether or not children are passive (or active) consumer-citizens or are more participatory and engaged citizens in their thinking.

It is also pointed that there are differences between the sexes when it comes to citizen engagement, equality and exclusion. For example, a fact not often mentioned was that over 80% of the people who died during the 2004 Asia Tsunami were females. It was presumed that they possessed less resources to live in less places, and that they lacked the resources to learn or know about potential hazards in the event they needed to escape.

The author’s basic premise is that learning about environmental techniques is not nearly as effective as participation and engagement actively, with the potentials to completely look at issues in new ways – and to have the capabilities for bringing them into fruition.

In this sense, the Arab Spring was not just a rising of awareness, but a collaboration and connection of people who were placing new ideas and approaches for engagement, governance and imaginations at the core of their goals. They were leveraging this energy with others toward a higher level and common good for all people.

The younger generation can be switched-off by too much moralising, the author says. Children like to generate and depend upon their own thoughts, collaborations and ideas together with peers. Thus we are left with the notion that clear top.down approaches for nurturing young minds is likely not a viable route. Instead, creating environments and spaces that cause young brains to interact, exchange and to develop positive, active voices is.

And this engagement goes to the heart of citizenship. Do we want green citizens? Likely not. Do we want eco citizens? Likely not. But we do want sustainable citizens and to the extent that citizenship that is responsible, adaptable and capable of meeting new and forward looking challenges in green and eco ways is perhaps the way forward.

Telling younger minds to act like older minds, is basically stirring the pot of conventional thinking and action, whereas alternate realities and a higher level of citizenship is to be sought. As the author says, we are constantly developing sense of citizenship both formally and informally.

“For many children, their physical and temporal freedoms to roam or to ‘waste time’ are under threat in highly urbanized, digital, monitored and commercialised spaces,” says Hayward. She refers to these children as being ‘gated’, ‘bubble-wrapped’ or chauffeured – a generation. Talking about growing up on Google Earth, the author suggests search engines are erecting gates and communities that prevent freedom of movement and create ‘nature deficit disorders’. They avoid risks, do not challenge ideas and follow pre-defined patterns.

Embedded ecological justice is mentioned and describes the sense of fairness that arises while investigating, learning about and deciding upon environmental factors and environments. Teaching this is a life-long practice though, requiring constant updating of thoughts, ideas, knowledge, actions and expansion of them together with others. Who should get which resources? How do we determine where to distribute them? Is time involved and how critical is it? For children though, fairness can and will take on new meaning and require different approaches.

A principle question that this book asks relates to the observation of whether or not we, as adults, are creating the spaces and places for children to not just play, but to engage issues of civic community and to environments that cause them to begin the interactive, collaborative and participatory processes that nurture, arrange and cause their minds to wonder, imagine and create possibilities, viewpoints and alternate perspectives. I must say that I wonder if we are anywhere effective at doing this on a continual basis in most neighbourhoods?

Children, Citizenship and Environment – Nurturing a democratic imagination in a changing world  – is a powerful book in terms of the positions presented, questions asked and observations it makes, particularly since they are linked to actual studies involving children. There are many unique and mind-opening thoughts in this book about society today that question the essence of citizenship, how it is taught, learned and expressed.


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