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The Nature of the Past

created May 09, 2017 02:06 PM

by Shelley Brooks

Recently, a group of social scientists released their report on the relationship between Americans and nature. Their survey of nearly 12,000 adults, children, and parents reveals that Americans are spending an increasing amount of time indoors, disconnected from, or lacking access to, connections with nature. The report is premised on the belief that such contact improves our physical, psychological, and social well-being. According to the authors, survey respondents revealed another benefit, which is that connections to nature “often instilled a sense of responsibility and commitment toward the natural world. For adults and children alike, connection seemed to emerge when nature was not passively enjoyed but, rather, was something to be involved in via exploration, care and responsibility, observation, learning, and familiarity with a particular landscape.”

Why should this matter to history-social science teachers? Beyond wanting to live and work in a healthy environment and amongst a healthy population, teachers can appreciate how using nature as a context for learning may very well deepen students’ knowledge of their curriculum. In history-social science, these contexts are many. Here are a few thoughts about how to increase these connections to nature, and students’ understanding of the role of the environment, in the history-social science classroom:

  • As elementary students learn about their local and state history, the landscapes around their schools and homes tell stories of population growth, industrial and/or agricultural developments, and the habitats and resources that help determine the local demographics and economy. Curriculum like that offered by the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI), provides students with historical sources, images, and stories about the many regions of California, from the earliest human settlements down through the twenty-first century. Examples include a third-grade unit on California Indians that helps students explore the natural habitats and natural resources available to local tribes, and a fourth-grade unit that helps students compare the natural features, characteristics, and resources of their local region to other California regions, and consider how population and industry can affect natural resources and services.
  • In middle school, learning about the history of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley – including the opportunities, challenges, and limitations imposed by an arid climate – will help students better understand the development of early civilizations in proximity to rivers. A sixth-grade EEI unit on river systems and ancient peoples helps students examine such histories. The CHSSP’s History Blueprint, Sites of Encounter in the Medieval World, includes resources for examining the influence of the environment in trade, health, politics, and cultural exchange during the middle ages.
  • California’s rich and diverse landscapes - encompassing 24 different climatic zones - are an exciting backdrop for students learning physical geography. The state’s rich human history (its migration patterns; its agricultural, industrial, conservation, and residential land use; and its cultural developments) all give great insight into the ninth-grade human geography course.
  • In eleventh-grade, students can gain a deeper understanding of modern U.S. history by examining California’s experience with immigration and the increasing demographic diversity of the U.S. population in the past half-century; the importance of the defense build-up in California during World War II and the Cold War; and the social and cultural trends set by a state that encompasses Hollywood, Disneyland, the property tax revolt, remarkable instances of racial tumult and harmony, environmental leadership, and extreme wealth and poverty. To a significant extent, these developments can be better understood by exploring the influence of California’s climate and natural resources, including how these have been harnessed and shaped, and by whom and for whom, over time. Visits to the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, or visits to other State Historic Parks in California, offer concrete examples of California’s contribution to broader national trends. For additional lesson ideas, see the “Teach California” edition of CHSSP’s magazine The Source.
  • Finally, in twelfth grade, studying California’s economy reveals the extent to which natural resources – like rich mineral, timber, and soil – set California on a course to lead the states in economic output. California’s proximity to the Pacific Theater of WWII, and its arid climate, helped put California in a position to reap federal investment in the construction of ships and planes and other war materiel. The emerging aeronautics industry helped spawn the computer industry in California. The state’s positioning on the Pacific Rim makes it a key player in international trade. California’s government has been shaped in part by the demographics, economic developments, and environmental opportunities and challenges mentioned above. EEI units designed for twelfth-grade provide in-depth curriculum on the economic and political considerations tied to industry, land use, environmental law, and conservation in California.

There is great benefit to learning about history, geography, economics, and government in the context of the environments that shaped these forces over time. To quote Dr. Gerald Lieberman, director of the State Education and Environment Roundtable, as students develop environmental and academic literacy they are preparing “to become active participants in their communities and civil society, capable of making well-informed decisions that take into account the potential impacts of human activities on the environment.” In addition, such training helps “students understand how humans and human culture can be affected by a changing physical world – in all likelihood something that twenty-first century students will need to know.”*

Finally, if you are looking for additional ideas about how to incorporate the environment into your curriculum, watch our free webinars and download teaching resources for immediate use in your classroom. And please give us feedback - how do you integrate the local environment into your teaching? We'd love to hear from you at!



*Gerald Lieberman, Education and the Environment: Creating Standards-Based Programs in Schools and Districts (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Education Press, 2013).