Liam Heneghan presents on children’s environmental literacy at October Sustainability Forum

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Mon Oct 15, 2018

An ecosystem ecologist at DePaul University, as well as the co-director for DePaul University’s Institute for Nature and Culture, Liam Heneghan presented as a guest speaker at the October installment of the Illinois Tech Office of Campus Energy and Sustainability (OCES)’s monthly Sustainability Forums on October 12. With a scientific background in environmental topics such as acid rain, decomposition, and nutrient dynamics, Heneghan is also a graduate student in philosophy and an occasional poet. From 12:30 to 2 p.m. in the MTCC Ballroom, Heneghan gave a unique presentation on issues of environmental literacy and sustainability in specific regards to children’s literature and storytelling.

Heneghan began his presentation by relaying some of his own personal background, and how having his own children prompted him to think back to his own upbringing and the stories he grew up with. As a child in Ireland, Heneghan grew up with a rich storytelling background, with both his mother and father sharing many stories from their own lives as well as fairy tales and other literary works.

Heneghan gave a specific example of his father reading a book on frogs that contained rather detailed explanations on amphibian sex life, much to his grandfather’s chagrin. This would later prove influential when his father found himself being called to help a neighbor birth a calf and choosing to withhold this information from his grandfather, given the extreme response the book had previously provoked. The reason Heneghan shared this story was that it “illustrates to me that you don’t know the impact a story is going to have on your life and when it will come back to you.” One’s parents or guardians “impact you in strange ways that you don’t recognize at the time.”

Extrapolating this point, Heneghan then shared his discovery that “there is much more environmental information in children’s books then we realize.” Many of the stories that are already popular with children and even stories that those in the audience grew up with are imbued with all kinds of environmental information. While Heneghan strongly endorses and agrees with contemporary environmental sentiments that children should spend less time looking at screens and electronics and more time exploring the outdoors, he also believes that some more attention should be paid to cultivating what he calls “the Great Indoors” and ensuring children are developing a sense of environmental responsibility through storytelling and reflection.

To aid in facilitating this kind of storytelling and reflection, Heneghan provided two separate frameworks for thinking about environmental storytelling for children. The first is what he referred to as the “ABCs of environmental literacy.” This set of general focus points will help parents and guardians think about general themes that they can relate to their children, without needing to be environmental experts or scientists themselves. Through the basics of “attunement to nature, basic ecological knowledge, cognitive skills for problem-solving, decoding the social-political context, environmentally responsible behavior, feeling that your actions matter, and grokking the major challenges,” Heneghan hopes that this framework can help the parents and guardians of young children begin to think about ways they can help young children reflect on the environment through common stories.

The other framework Heneghan discussed was the layout of his book, “Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature.” Heneghan divided his book into four landscapes, or story themes: pastoral, wild, wilderness, and urban. These landscapes (aside from urban) are all common tropes in children’s stories and oftentimes are deeply rooted in environmental and naturalist sentiments.

In his discussion of the pastoral promise, Heneghan summarized it as the ubiquitous trope of living “happily ever after” - a world that is a peaceful endgame and one where harmony reigns throughout. His discussion suggested that children are much more able to connect with such pastoral images and connect them to their own lives and imaginations, but adults can oftentimes face a sort of disconnect with such peaceful landscapes, whether it be because of physical distance from childhood memory locations or traumatic events. This point was demonstrated using the example of Christopher Robin (of “Winnie-the-Pooh” fame) and how his wartime traumas led him to believe the “world was not talking to him anymore.” However, at young, imaginative ages, Heneghan stressed that children, if properly groomed, can assign much value to these kinds of landscapes and gain a deeper appreciation for a natural, harmonious world.

Furthermore, Heneghan concluded that it is no accident that these sorts of environmental themes are abundant in children’s literature. “Many of these early authors would be considered naturalists by today’s standards.”  He gave the example of Beatrix Potter, an English writer in the late 1800s and early 1900s, whose initial attempts at writing on fungi for scientific purposes were met with dismissal due to her gender. Potter thus turned to children’s storytelling and chose to embed as much environmental appreciation into her stories as possible.

The second landscape, the wild, is best exemplified by the common trope of children lost on a wild island. Heneghan described how such an environment “intensifies conflict. It’s small and cozy but also adrift from parental control.” The senses of isolation and apartness are expressed through the vehicle of the natural environment, with Heneghan using the example of Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea Trilogy.”

Wilderness, the third landscape, can be seen in perhaps the most influential writer on the field, John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien. Tolkien’s works are “very motivated by the loss of woodlands in British landscapes.” Tolkien found later in his life that many of the places from his youth were destroyed by environmental degradation, and so he turned to his writing to preserve these landscapes in a way, and so Heneghan believes that much of Tolkien’s work can be seen as early attempts at environmentalism.

The final landscape, urban spaces, is one that Heneghan has found very little literature exists, and the literature that does exist is very cautionary in nature. The story of “Heidi,” by Johanna Spyri, for example, sees the eponymous character’s condition diminish as the result of living in a city, before a return to the countryside prompts her recovery. Heneghan left this landscape with a suggestion that those interested in writing children’s literature could consider bolstering the bibliography in this landscape.

Ultimately, Heneghan concluded with the points that parents, teachers, and guardians may experience difficulty in instilling environmental stewardship, but that such literacy is especially important in this current age, as issues of degradation, resource diminishment, and climate change hold increasingly worrying implications for the future generations. However, the existing vehicle of children’s stories carry with them a plethora of information and lessons on the environment, and all it takes is for parents and guardians to think in terms of these lessons and help their children properly reflect to begin to make some impact on the state of the world. Heneghan left the audience with this belief that “sometimes, you don’t even realize the significance of events until you reflect back on them.”

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