Education for the Earth

One day a strange letter arrives in the classroom. Inside is an invitation from a mysterious source known as ‘E.M.’, along with a Hobbit-like map of a place high in the mountains, with features such as ‘Possum Jungle’, ‘Spinach Falls’, ‘Lost World’ and an area marked simply ‘Unexplored Territory’. Near the centre of the map is the Earthkeepers Training Centre, along with a small hut labelled ‘E.M.’s Lab’. Who is E.M., and what is this thing the class has been invited to? The students are curious, and excitement slowly builds as the date approaches.

And so the adventure begins.

I pull my head out of the book that Richard gave to me and lean back in my chair, looking around the main hall of the Earthkeepers Training Centre. Richard handed me their handbook on my second day here, and I’ve thrown myself into the task of studying it.

I had asked a few different sustainability experts and outdoor educators, ‘Where should I go to see a top example of sustainability education?’, and they had directed me here. I thought I already knew a thing or two about environmental education, but this is something else. Fireworks are going off in my head the more I read, and I find myself wanting to know more with a voracity that surprises me. But first there’s something I’m even more curious about.

I put the book down and walk outside. It’s still early morning and mist fills the surrounding rainforest. Crossing over to the hut opposite, I soon find the entrance to E.M.’s Lab. It’s locked. On the door is a strange symbol with the warning: ‘Beware. All ye who enter must know the secret password for the keys.’ Huh. I don’t know the password, but maybe I can convince Lizz to make a special allowance for me later.

It all began a couple of days earlier when I had cycled to a local school in the small inland town of Beaudesert. I was early, so I waited with my bike until a car pulled up and I went over to meet Lizz. After checking in at the admin office, we headed to the school library and set up.

Soon the students filed in, shepherded by their teachers, and once they were all seated on the floor Lizz began her session. The topic was ‘Slow Fashion’, as part of her ‘Plastic Free July’ school outreach series, and after preparing them with information about clothing waste plus the fact that two thirds of our clothes are made of plastic, she organised them into groups and had them turning old t-shirts into useful bags they can put things into.

It was a tough class, made up of three class groups that had been combined, and Lizz had to use her full arsenal of crowd control techniques. By the end she was worn out.

This was the first of four classes that I’d observe, but we were done for the day at least. After loading my bike and bags into the car, we set off towards their education centre ‘Wild Mountains’, near the Queensland border.

On the way we chatted about Lizz’s work. I wanted to find out how ‘Wild Mountains’ approached sustainability education and after that day’s class I felt I had a general sense of it. Lizz told me however that what I’d seen that day isn’t their main focus — what they do up in the mountains is quite different and goes much deeper.

The bitumen road turned to gravel winding its way up along a narrow and exposed mountain ridge. It was a nerve-wracking climb, and I tried not to notice how steeply the ground dropped away on either side of us. Lizz seemed relaxed though and we were soon greeted by breathtaking views over the hills and valleys far below.

By the time we reached ‘Wild Mountains’ we were deep within forest; dry eucalyptus forest on one side of the ridge, and lush rainforest on the other. She took me to the main Centre, a large wooden building nestled amongst the trees, and we unloaded the car. Inside was a large hall with windows looking out into the rainforest, a fireplace, shelves filled with books, a communal kitchen and bathrooms with showers and composting toilets.

Lizz directed me to the camping huts where the students stay, and then left me there to drive back down to her own house. I wheeled my bike up the rainforest driveway and down a track through eucalypts to a cluster of simple A-frames.

The view through the trees was incredible, but it felt strange to be here alone. What had I got myself into? How was I going to get my head around how they tackle their education work here? I chose a hut and carried my bags inside to get settled in.

That evening several people gathered in the main hall for dinner then relaxed around the fire together. Amongst them were Richard and Susan, the founders of ‘Wild Mountains’. Susan is a gentle and softly spoken woman who seems to listen intently to every word, whilst Richard is the more vocal of the two of them. Both seem keenly intelligent with a deep knowledge of the forests and a passion for protecting them. I sat next to Richard and began to learn their story.

Richard describes the two of them as a pair of greenie ratbags who in their younger years would volunteer with conservation groups. They were part of the campaign efforts to save the Frankland River, followed by the Daintree Rainforest and then the Great Barrier Reef, one after the other. They started to think: wouldn’t it be good if we could establish an education centre in order to instill environmental values in children while they’re young, so they’d grow up caring for the environment and we wouldn’t have to always be fighting to protect it. Something non-confrontational, as they were tired of confrontation.

In 1985, Richard, Susan and two friends bought the land in the mountains, originally owned by Susan’s great grandfather, and a few years later moved up part-time and began building the first residences. The name ‘Wild Mountains’ started as just a nickname, but it stuck.

In the 1990s they began running programs down on the Gold Coast, while up in the mountains they became stuck in court battles with the local council. Their eco-friendly buildings, made using mostly salvaged materials, were not well appreciated by the council and they struggled to get building approvals.

During all this, they travelled to an overseas conference and met Steve Van Matre, the founder of the Earth Education movement.

Steve Van Matre is an environmental activist, educator and author. He had realised that the typical ‘follow me, gather round’ approach of traditional nature study, often involving labelling bits of nature and quizzing students, wasn’t working as a means to turn youngsters on to the natural world.

Environmental education had in most cases become a sprinkling of activities, usually supplemental and random with no clear learning objectives. They were often issues-based, focussed on the present environmental problems, rather than foundational trainings that fostered a love of nature and instilled values.

He believed that educational programs aimed at helping people live more lightly on the planet should be a separate and distinct part of every school curriculum, as important as maths, science, history or language. Understanding basic ecological concepts (and their meaning in our daily lives) is too important to leave to a chance lesson or talk.

At that time there were no comprehensive programs with a skilfully crafted, sequential and cumulative series of learning experiences that had defined outcomes and rewards for the learners when they achieved them. So Steve and his group founded the Institute for Earth Education and set about creating them.

They designed programs to ‘pull’ and entice the learners along, fostering curiosity, with magical experiences that promise discovery and adventure. They are hands-on and minds-on, emphasising the four major ecological understandings of ‘energy flow’, ‘cycling’, ‘interrelationships’ and ‘change’. They also avoid the labelling and quizzing approach in favour of full participation through more sharing and doing.

Earthkeepers is their program developed for 10 to 11 year olds, aimed to help participants live more harmoniously and joyously with the earth and all its life. Richard and Susan loved the power and magic of it and decided, ‘Let’s use these tools at ‘Wild Mountains’ to get kids in touch with the natural world.’

They’ve had many volunteers involved At ‘Wild Mountains’ along the way. In the early 2000s, after issues with the local council had been cleared up, a volunteer named Joan helped raise $750,000, allowing them to really get started. Finally, in 2007, the main hall and amenities block was finished and they could start running Earthkeeper trainings. They later built the A-frame huts for the students to stay in.

More recently Lizz and her partner moved up to Wild Mountains and are now taking the lead on running programs while Richard and Susan are stepping back.

I wanted to understand Earth Education and the Earthkeeper program more, and what makes it different to other approaches, but it seemed that would have to wait. We eventually said goodnight, and I made my way by torchlight through the forest to my A-frame hut and prepared for bed.

The next morning Lizz picked me up from the Centre and we drove back down the mountain to Beaudesert. She had three teaching sessions scheduled for the day: one at a local kindergarten and two at the state school. The topic was ‘Nude Food’, and she had the students making snacks that weren’t wrapped in plastic, in this case: coconut-covered date balls. The students were much better-behaved this time, and she came out at the end of it all feeling exhilarated.

On the drive back to the mountains afterwards I asked Lizz the question that had been on my mind: Aren’t these the type of issues-based classes that Steve Van Matre was criticising? She replied saying that these classes are still valuable and important, but we mustn’t have only this. We also need the deeper, foundational work.

To be honest, she said, these outreach classes are really just a gateway to build relationships with schools — so as to get them sending their students to do Earthkeeper trainings. They run seven Earthkeeper trainings per year, each with about thirty students, for two and a half days up at ‘Wild Mountains’ then ten weeks of follow-up work in their schools.

That afternoon Richard found me in the main hall and handed me the Earthkeepers handbook. The size of a small paperback novel, with a green cover, it looked worn and well-used. There was also a larger tome that he offered me on Earth Education, but I decided to stick to the smaller one.

I started reading it casually, but was soon pulled into the Earthkeepers adventure — and I couldn’t get enough. I became determined to finish it before I left. There was one question bugging me about it though, and I resolved to ask Richard when I saw him next.

Once the students arrive at Wild Mountains for the Earthkeepers training their magical journey of discovery begins. They are guided through a carefully planned schedule of activities and adventures, to try to find out the true nature of E.M.. To fulfil their quest they must acquire four keys: ‘K’, ‘E’, ‘Y’ and ‘S’, each of which unlock new passwords, and access into E.M.’s Lab, as well as new stages of the adventure.

The ‘K’ key stands for ‘Knowledge’, with a focus on the four basic ecological concepts: the ‘flow of energy’, from the sun, to plants, to plant-eaters, to animal eaters; the ‘cycling’ of the basic building materials of life; the ‘interrelationship’ between everything in an ecosystem; and ‘change’, how life is not static, but goes through seasons and cycles and is constantly adapting.

The students do a number of activities to understand these concepts in depth, such as ‘Munchline Monitors’, ‘Great Speck-tacle’, ‘Connection Inspection’ and ‘Time Capsules’. When they achieve their ‘K’ key it allows them their first entry into E.M.’s Lab, one student at a time, to find out what’s in store for them next.

The ‘E’ key is for ‘Experience’, and to achieve this they take part in activities such as ‘Earthwalks’, giving them light, refreshing touches of nature; ‘Discovery Parties’, where they visit listening points, or explore miniature worlds with magnifying glasses; and ‘E.M.’s Diary’, following in the footsteps of E.M.’s adventure through the forest.

There’s also ‘Magic Spots’, where the students are each left in a quiet place in the forest each day to sit and be alone in direct contact with nature. As the writer Thoreau put it, ‘You learn that if you sit down in the woods and wait, something happens.’

I remember on an outdoor camp in Year 9 where we did this, the instructor putting each of us in our own spot in the bush and leaving us alone for half an hour. That simple but profound experience has stayed with me ever since, and I’m intrigued to see it here.

‘Solitude’ is one of the four main components used in the Earthkeepers training. There’s also ‘Observation’, learning the skills of being a good observer; and ‘Immersion’, having youngsters learn to feel comfortable in natural surroundings.

The fourth component is ‘Discovery’. It’s not enough just to get the youngsters out there, the handbook explains, you also have to arouse their curiosity about what’s really going on.

The handbook also provided a number of guidelines for the instructors, telling them to create magical learning adventures, so as to pull the learners, not push them; and to focus on sharing and doing. It’s not what you tell them that’s important, the handbook explained, but what they do with what you tell them.

I was particularly drawn to the list of things to avoid, especially ‘naming and labelling’, as I imagined this is something I would mistakenly do myself. The handbook stated that naming is not knowing, and whilst the names for broad categories of things can be useful, most of the others just get in the way.

I asked Richard about this later and he said that when a student points to a plant or animal and asks ‘What’s that?’, if you respond by telling them the name, they immediately stop looking and also typically forget the name shortly after. If instead you respond by asking them what they see, the students will more likely take a closer look.

As the students earn the four keys for their keyrings, including the ‘Y’ and ‘S’ keys that are achieved during the follow up weeks back at their school, they not only discover how life functions ecologically on the earth, they find out how they are both a part of our environmental problems and their solutions.

By the end of my third day I finished reading the Earthkeepers handbook, finally putting it down. I decided to go and spend time in nature myself, and set off along a track through the rainforest, up the mountain to where it came out at a spectacular view over the valley.

It was nearing dusk as I walked back, and the forest seemed more alive. I saw lyrebirds roaming the undergrowth and heard catbirds calling to each other above, their bizarre song sounding like a baby crying in the forest. When I reached the road along the ridge line I crossed over to walk through the eucalyptus forest and soon spotted a koala high up in one of the gum trees. It seemed a truly magical place.

That night the stars were out, crisp and clear, twinkling through the trees. I joined Richard, Susan and the others in the main hall for my last evening on the mountain, and asked them the question that had been bugging me.

The Earthkeepers training program and handbook was published in 1988. Isn’t it now outdated? Richard shook his head and told me that Earthkeepers still works, it’s still accurate and as engaging, and there hasn’t been a better program developed.

He told me about a friend of his, Cam MacKenzie, who used to run Earthkeepers in Palooma and later went on to become the advisor to the Minister for Education. Richard recently chatted with Cam, asking if Earthkeepers is out-of-date, to which Cam replied, ‘No, it’s as relevant today as it ever was, if not more so, and you can still see the power of it today.’

The main challenge with Earth Education is schools prioritising it and allocating time and resources to it. Teachers are time poor and weighed down by more paperwork and bureaucracy than ever before. Curriculums keep changing and schools are getting bigger and less flexible.

But Richard told me of one school, Boronia Heights State School, who have been doing Earthkeepers camps since 2007. They have an eco-club with eco-captains, who have a similar status in the school as the sports captains. The students gain a foundation through Earthkeepers, then ongoing learning and development through the eco-club. The school recently won the Logan City Environment Award and came third in the Premier’s Environment Award.

Sometimes parents come along to the trainings and are told to just be one of the kids for the weekend. Often they hear afterwards that these parents got as much out of it, if not more, than the kids.

They’ve also had international school groups from Canada come out to do trainings in the winter months.

We’re not saying what we’re doing is perfect, Richard said. There are other programs out there, but not a holistic approach to what we’re doing on the planet. ‘These are powerful programs, they’re foundational, and they’ve changed people’s lives; people re-evaluate and decide to start doing things differently — this is what we set out to do.’

The next morning, Lizz dropped me and my bike at the base of the mountains, and I pedalled north feeling inspired, my head filled with a new perspective on educating children in sustainability. It’s also filled with the memory of E.M.’s lab, as before I’d left I’d been allowed inside. It was a place filled with marvels, along with the four wooden key boxes, waiting to be unlocked.

Huge thanks to Lizz, Richard and Susan for hosting me at Wild Mountains and sharing their work with me.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?