Articles & Film


Articles & Film Appearances


Everyone Ought to Have a Ditch

Community Works Journal

“I spend a lot of time these days talking with teachers, foundation directors, environmental educators, and evaluators about how to most effectively shape environmental stewardship behavior. The $64,000 question is—what’s the most effective way to educate children who will grow up to behave in environmentally responsible ways? Or, more elaborately, what kinds of learning, or what kinds of experience will most likely shape young adults who want to protect the environment, participate on conservation commissions, think about the implications of their consumer decisions and minimize the environmental footprint of their personal lives and the organizations where they work? There’s a surprising dearth of information about exactly how this process works...”


When Nature Gives You Ticks, Create a Tick Curriculum

Green Schools Catalyst Quarterly

Robin Huntley, a teacher at Juniper Hill School for Place-based Education in Maine, and David describe how a surging tick population at a rural Maine School inspired a class of third-graders to engage in a study of ticks, their habitat and behaviors and then share their findings with the larger school community. The findings of the student scientists were counter-intuitive and their presentations of the data helped to replace teacher and parent anxiety with a calm and sober understanding of the actual risk to children from the tick population. This is a good example of curriculum in the service of community understanding and health, which in turn is a good illustration of one of the benefits of place-based education.

Tick Photo-David Sobel.jpg

The Best Way to Learn About a Tree

Yes Magazine

The original kindergarten—the children’s garden—conceived by German educator Friedrich Froebel in the 19th century, was a place where children learned through play, often in nature.

That idea is fast eroding. Children aren’t playing in the garden anymore; instead they’re filling in bubbles on worksheets. Kindergarten is the new first grade. Its teachers are required to focus on a narrowing range of literacy and math skills; studies show that “some kindergarteners spend up to six times as much time on those topics and on testing and test prep than they do in free play or ‘choice time,’” writes journalist David McKay Wilson in the Harvard Education Letter.

Instruction is teacher-proofed as teachers are required to use scripted curricula that give them little opportunity to create lessons in response to students’ interests. Many schools have eliminated recess or physical education, depriving children of the important developmental need to move and exercise. The efforts to force reading lessons and high-stakes testing on ever younger children could actually hamper them later in life by depriving them of a chance to learn through play.

best way to learn about a tree-sobel.jpg

Look, Don’t Touch

Orion Magazine

The kids have been up since seven-thirty playing computer games and watching cartoons. What a travesty for them to be inside on such a beautiful day, you harrumph to yourself. On the refrigerator, you notice the schedule of events from the nearby nature center. “Let’s Get Face to Face with Flowers,” it beckons. Just the thing! It’s a sparkly May morning. Buds are bursting. There’s a warm breeze full of the aromatic scent of the woods just waking up.

You trundle the kids into the minivan. They despondently consent. “Do we have to do a program? Programs are boring,” the older one complains. But as soon as you pull into the parking lot at Happy Hills Nature Center, their faces brighten. They fling the sliding door open and scamper down through the blossom-filled meadow to the shore of the pond. Ross, age seven, pulls off his sneakers and wades in, bent over searching for frogs. Amanda, age ten, plops down and starts making a dandelion tiara. What a good decision, you think to yourself.

Terri, the smiley naturalist wearing the official Happy Hills insigniaed staff shirt, saunters over. “Here for the flower program?” she chirps. “We’re meeting up in the Cozy Corner room to get started.”

Ross asks, “Can Freddie come too?” holding up the fat green frog he has befriended.

Terri’s bright face darkens a bit. “Sorry. Freddie needs to stay in the pond. Did you know the oils from your hands can make Freddie sick?”


The Future’s So Bright: Early Childhood Education in the 21st Century

Green Schools Catalyst Quarterly

As public schools in the United States and elsewhere have put greater emphasis on standardized testing, there’s been downward pressure on early childhood education. Kindergarten is the new first grade, and pre-school is the new Kindergarten with worksheets galore supplanting good old-fashioned play-based learning. Another troubling tendency, over the past 20 years, has been children’s retreat from the outdoors into the indoors world. Many of our young children are spending up to eight hours a day engaged with some form of digital media and 30 minutes a day outside. In response, a grassroots movement has arisen to “naturalize” early childhood programs. Nature-based early childhood approaches are the counterpoint to this indoorification, digitalization and academification of children’s lives.



Yes Magazine

“Just as ethnobotanists are descending on tropical forests in search of new plants for medical uses, environmental educators, parents, and teachers are descending on second and third graders to teach them about the rainforests. From Brattleboro, Vermont, to Berkeley, California, school children are learning about tapirs, poison arrow frogs, and biodiversity. They hear the story of the murder of activist Chico Mendez and watch videos about the plight of indigenous forest people displaced by logging and exploration for oil. They learn that between the end of morning recess and the beginning of lunch, more than 10,000 acres of rainforest will be cut down, making way for fast food “hamburgerable” cattle.

The motive for all this is honorable and just, but what's emerging is a strange kind of schizophrenia. Children are disconnected from the world outside their doors and connected with endangered animals and ecosystems around the globe through electronic media.

What really happens when we lay the weight of the world's environmental problems on eight and nine year-olds already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature?”


Swimming Upstream Against the Current: Changing the School Improvement Paradigm

Community Works Journal

Crellin Elementary School in Oakland, Maryland sits hard-by the West Virginia border. It’s a forgotten coal-mining community with an abandoned rail line running through the middle of it. The small school serves about 100 students, 87 % on free andreduced lunch. The parents are coal miners, truck drivers, farmers, tradesmen.

Dana McCauley, Crellin’s teaching principal, is driving me through the school’s immediate neighborhood. The neglected Community Building has a section of collapsed roof, rotten stairs, peeling shingles. The houses have flaking paint, ripped off trim boards, broken windows.  “One of the students lives in that trailer back there,” she points. The yard is scattered with broken toys, car parts, an old refrigerator, a wind-tossed tarp, moldering insulation. Drug and alcohol abuse are problems for some local families.  It fulfills all your stereotypes of a hard-luck Appalachian community. 

Which makes the story of this school so much more provocative. The fifty–year old school building, low slung and hunkered down only a stone’s throw from the abandoned Community Building, is tidy, well-kept and welcoming. It’s the new center of the community. Inside the bulletin boards bristle with pictures of smiling children on a sledding trip to the bus-driver’s farm, historic photos of the sawmill that used to occupy the school site, student designed brochures about the American Chestnut, a healthy snacks project, and a  map of the Environmental Education Laboratory.  

An amazing transformation has happened at Crellin over the past eight years. This is school change at it’s best.


Outdoor School for All: Reconnecting Children with Nature

The Worldwatch Institute

One of the salient problems facing us today is children’s alienation from the natural world. They are too creeped out to touch earthworms, they don’t know where their food comes from, and they are afraid to walk in the forest alone.

Or, if they are walking in the forest, they can’t see the forest for their iPhones. We, and our children, are easily seduced by the panoply of digital treats. It is so much easier to be a couch potato than to plant potatoes. The result is that twenty-first-century children spend eight hours a day interacting with digital media, and only thirty minutes a day outside.

When interviewed about their computer use about fifteen years ago, children in Putney, Vermont, described how this happened. One girl sheepishly admitted: “Before we had a computer, I used to read a lot and go outside more to be in the neighborhood. Now, it’s so easy to go exploring on the computer, it’s like it’s too much work to go outside.” Another boy agreed: “I’ll be playing a really cool computer game, and I’ll think, ‘Wow, it’s beautiful outside, I should really go outside.’ But I can’t stop myself from playing—it’s kind of like I’m addicted.” A third student summarized: “For me, I learned to love nature before I did computers, and so it doesn’t really affect me. But if I started to use computers when I was really young, it might have kept me from getting into nature.” Today, the computerization of childhood is so complete that not even this level of awareness exists for most children.


Taking the Classroom to the Forest: A School’s Forest Fridays Program

Community Works Journal

Boot clad and bundled, seventeen kindergartners shuffle out of the heavy school doors. As they emerge, each breath suddenly becomes visible mixing with the cold, penetrating air. Standing poised at the door, one student, the “door holder,” waits until his or her last classmate has emerged. The students move confidently behind their teacher, Eliza Minnucci, who strides purposefully towards the nearby trail system, a mere 20 yards from the school doors. Today is Friday, Forest Friday.

Every Friday for the past nine months, Minnucci and her students have left the walls of the Ottauqueechee Public School in Quechee, Vermont behind and ventured into the woods, rain or shine, frigid or buggy.  Each child is responsible for dressing themselves and making sure that their backpacks contain a lunch, water, and extra layers. They will be outside for nearly their entire school day and need to be prepared for whatever they may encounter. This unpredictability that exists in the outdoors was one of the driving factors in Minnucci’s decision to start a Forest Kindergarten program.

the harvest.jpeg

Climate Change Meets Ecophobia

Connect Magazine

Ever since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth brought global climate change firmly into the public consciousness and public schools, the cards, letters and e-mails keep on coming. “Is it really appropriate for third graders to watch this movie?” worried parents and teachers ask me. Their deep concern: Is it useful, or counterproductively upsetting, for children to be educated about the world going to hell in a handbasket?

People ask me because about ten years ago I wrote a little book called, Beyond Ecophobia, advocating for honoring developmental appropriateness in environmental education. At that point, I railed against premature rainforest education for young children. I was concerned about the curriculum message that the rainforest is being destroyed and it’s your responsibility, first graders, to save it! This would have been like asking us children growing up in the early 1950’s to find a cure for polio.

 In a “My Turn” essay of an August, 2004 Newsweek, Brookfield (Illinois) Zoo educator and parent Katie Johnson Slivovsky framed the dilemma well in pointing out the problem with some eco-ardent children’s literature—in this case a book about extinct animals for pre-schoolers. Here’s her portrait of reading this book as a bedtime story.

 “‘L’ is for Las Vegas Frog . . . People built the city of Las Vegas and paved over all the freshwater springs where this frog used to live. Sadly, we say good-bye to the Las Vegas frog.” The very last sentence of the book is, “Let’s hope humans never become extinct.” “Night-night, Jimmy.”


The Best Day Ever: Forest Days in Vermont Kindergartens

Film Interview

Inspired by European Forest Kindergartens, a handful of teachers in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of Vermont began dedicating one day-per-week to nature-based play and learning five years ago. The idea, since featured on National Public Radio and on The Atlantic Magazine Education blog, has caught the attention of parents and educators nationwide. Regionally, dozens of classrooms now spend frequent time in wild spaces, cooking over campfires, and learning and playing in all weather.

“The Best Day Ever” takes you to two Upper Valley schools: Marion Cross (Norwich, VT) and Hartland Elementary (Hartland, VT). In the film, you hear from teachers, administrators, parents, and students, and get an intimate view of the hands-on learning happening in the forests beyond our local school playgrounds. See how dedicated teachers are changing the trajectory of public school Kindergarten by bringing joy and wonder back into education through the experience of playing in nature.

The film, made possible with the support of the George B. Storer Foundation, follows a well-received set of written case studies of Forest Day programs at Mount Lebanon School (NH) Hartland Elementary (VT) and Ludlow Elementary (VT).

Antioch’s Nature-Based Early Childhood program trains teachers, administrators, and founders of nature preschools and forest kindergartens.

movie poster.png