Tad Poles and Tough Questions: Integrating Social Studies and Environmental Education


Carole Basile and Cameron White

Mud holes and tad poles do not appear on any list of mandated civics curriculum topics, and yet such mundane things—the sort of things found in the weedy lots behind school yards—can be the stuff of a rich lesson, not just in biology, but in social studies.

In environmental education, five components are typically discussed: (1) sensitivity and awareness, (2) ecological foundations, (3) issues and values, (4) investigations and evaluation, and (5) action skills.1 At the early childhood level, theorists suggest that teachers can best emphasize sensitivity and awareness, and pay less attention to the other components. Author David Sobel states, “What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it, before being asked to heal its wounds.”2 There may not, however, be such a clean division between the five components: When children notice and care about an aspect of nature, questions often arise that involve the effects of human-environmental interactions, and thus, social values. Following the trail of inquiry can easily lead to discussions about that most challenging question of all, “What can I do about it?”


Social Studies in Environmental Education

Taken together, the five components of environmental education represent an integration of science and social studies skills. Sensitivity and awareness of the natural world have been discussed at length.3 But these achievements can be followed by investigation, evaluation, decision making, and action. Teachers of social studies and science can team up to create an interdisciplinary unit on the environment. Social studies and science can be melded through„knowledge, skills, and values development. A child’s familiarity with all five components might be called environmental literacy.



Seize the Moment

Although an interdisciplinary unit on environmental literacy can be fun to plan, a tougher challenge for a teacher is to respond, off the top of one’s head, to situations that young children may bring to the classroom. One can try to recognize these unpredictable situations as opportunities, rather than as distractions to the day’s lesson: “Is there any way to relate the knowledge and skills I want to teach to the opportunity at hand?” (Scenarios 1-3).


Scenario 1. Tadpoles and Mosquito Bites

There is a lot of home construction around our school. The ruts left by large equipment may have standing water in them for long periods of time. After school (and after the construction workers have left), children are apt to play on these lots, digging in the dirt or exploring the property for “neat stuff.”

A group of children, ages 3 to 7 years old, discovered that there was really neat stuff in the water that had been collecting in the ruts – tadpoles. Everyday the children would go out to watch them as they developed into tiny frogs. However, there was concern in the community that, because of the time of year, the standing water would incubate more than just tadpoles. It would also be a great habitat for a tremendous number of mosquito larvae. Thus, neighbors wanted the contractor to fill in the ruts and holes.

When the children found out that the holes might be filled in, they became concerned for the tadpoles. They wanted to rescue them but didn’t know how. A five-year-old student asked a teacher what to do.



Scenario 2. Spiders and Assistant Principals

Ms. M was considered the “nature-lover” at her school. She started the year by teaching her kindergarten students to respect living things. If an insect was in her room, the children watched it for a while, caught it and released it outside. Her students were also overheard telling other children not to step on insects.

Now, spiders, in general, are feared by many, but a black widow spider is often cause for alarm, especially when that spider is found in the classroom. The child who found the spider called his teacher, who called Ms. M, who caught the spider in a jar for everyone to see. She taped the lid on tightly and spent some time with her children discussing spiders and black widow spiders and what it means to be venomous. She decided this was a great learning opportunity, but that she would keep the spider for only a few days and then release it in a field somewhere away from school property. Everyone in the school heard about the spider and wanted to see it.

But the next day, the assistant principal knocked on Ms. M’s door and told her she needed to take the spider away. They had called an exterminator to destroy the spider because school policy insisted that any animal that could be dangerous to the children be destroyed. Ms. M said, “I just spent the first 6 weeks of school teaching children to catch and release and respect living things. How do I explain this to them?”



Scenario 3. Ants and the “Bug Man”

One morning right after school started in September, the children started screaming that their early morning readers were crawling with ants. The children quickly calmed down when I explained that these ants were not the “stinging” ones and they were harmless to our books and us. The looks I got from the children were puzzling when I walked over to the area from which the ants came. I showed them the trail and we followed it into an electric outlet where the ants disappeared into the wall. We spent a few minutes that day brainstorming “why the ants come and what we should do.” The children knew then that they had a teacher for whom the “little things” could be fun.

The next couple of weeks, the children spotted every living creature in the building, from the water bugs in the girls restroom to the moth in the gym hallway. Megan found a spider one day in the center of our room. She called for us to come and see. We decided, as a class, not to let brave Spencer step on it. We looked it up in a field guide and found that it was a harmless house spider, so we adopted it as our mascot. Each day we spotted him somewhere in the room. Students could take turns observing him during part of their quiet study time.

The ants, however, disappeared without explanation, until the “Bug Man,” or so we called our district exterminator, came in one day to ask if we saw any more ants. The children took to this friendly, likable man and asked him many questions about his job. He quickly became a special friend to our class.

The situations in scenarios 1 and 2 are not earth shattering (neither the tadpoles in the ruts nor the black widow spider is an endangered species, nor would their fate influence the local economy), but they were opportunities for teaching—as well as moments that present the instructor with curious complications. With regard to the black widow spider, should Ms. M quickly turn it over to the “proper authorities,” and explain her action to the children? Or should she turn it over and say nothing? Or should she ask the assistant principal to help explain the matter to the whole class before taking away the condemned? Or should she protest the spider’s destruction? Or should she disobey the rule and let the spider “run free” in a faraway field, possibly earning a reprimand for herself?

The uncomfortable truth to the “social studies” aspect of such a moment is that there is no clearly “correct” answer. The fate of the spider will depend on the negotiating skills of Ms. M, the flexibility of the assistant principal, and the wording and authority of the rule about destroying dangerous animals. But one thing is certain: How Ms. M interacts with the children, the assistant principal, and the luckless spider is going to be part of the larger “lesson” as seen by her students.


Guideposts on the Trail

How can social studies teachers make the most of environmental issues, whether they arise suddenly or within a planned, interdisciplinary lesson? Some guiding principles might help us organize our thoughts when it comes to such challenges. Let’s discuss the specific example of the black widow spider in the classroom (scenario 2) as well as larger, planned units of study in general.

> Meaningful—When confronted with a sudden controversy, we can ask the students what it means to them: Do they care about the fate of the black widow spider, for example? Why or why not? Why would a school have a rule about dangerous insects? When planning a lesson on the environment, we can look for ways to make it relevant and meaningful, involving places and concepts that children can relate to. Rain forests are an inviting topic, but are distant abstractions for young children. Rather, we might ask ourselves what things are close at hand on which to build the lesson: the creek out back; family pets; the trees and shrubs on the school grounds; or the wildlife in a nearby park.

> Value-based—There are always different points of view in every issue. What was the assistant principa#146;s concern? What would the spider say, if it could think and talk? How do parents react to bugs found in the house? How do students react if they find a spider at home? Any lesson on the environment can allow for investigation and controversy through debates, role playing, inquiry, and issue investigations. When giving background information, we can present all sides of the issue (for example, the perspective of the developer as well as the preservationist), bringing literature and speakers into the classroom that advocate different opinions. We can encourage students to get involved in improving the school environment, but participation in any larger action or membership in an organization should always be a student’s own decision.

> Challenging—We can look for opportunities where students can make decisions and live with those they make. What would students recommend doing with a black widow spider found in the classroom? Would they like to change the policy, maybe by writing a “Students’ Proposal for Dealing with Dangerous Animals in Our School.” When planning a whole unit of study, we might pique student interest through inquiry, cooperative learning, and simulations. Units on recycling have been developed in many schools and can serve as model lesson plans, but this particular topic is now “old hat” to many children. We can try to look beyond the obvious for something unique and particular to our school or community.

> Integrative—We can try to integrate the disciplines, but also make connections among the areas within traditional subject areas. A thematic approach to the curriculum lends itself to integration. For example, some of the ten themes outlined by NCSS could serve as the foundation for a unit on environmental education.4 Human interaction with the environment is the suggested focus—not just the observation of plants and animals. This is where issues (of values, policy, and action) emerge.

> Active—Traditional environmental education has been passive and teacher-directed. Active involvement of children can make science and social studies come alive: the students make discoveries, ponder outcomes, and search for meaning.

> Hopeful—Sometimes the outcome of a situation is not what we would have liked (the classroom fish dies, the tree is cut down to make parking space, or the spider is destroyed). In these cases, a teacher could ask how students feel and what they wish the outcome might have been. We can point out any good efforts that were made (as well as mistakes), and discuss the value of what has been learned—the new knowledge that might help us better understand life’s next challenge. For example, what if you were a game warden in Montana, and a wolf was straying from the national park to attack farmers? How would you go about seeking a solution? How is that situation (a real enough problem) similar to scenario 2? There always seems to be enough bad news about the state of the Earth and its resources to scare any thinking adult, but teachers are not in the business to scare children. For any given environmental problem, there are people working hard to solve it, through the use of appropriate technology, sustainable economics, and sound public policy. These hopeful aspects are part of the whole picture.



Environmental education for young children can be so much more powerful when social studies and science are integrated. By investigating meaningful issues, using a variety of instructional strategies, and promoting active involvement, teachers can facilitate critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

A teacher who makes the most of unplanned situations makes social studies and environmental education come alive. Traditional environmental education often focuses on the “do’s & don’t’s,” rarely going below the surface. The transformation of environmental education for young children could help them develop the vital skills necessary for their active participation as citizens. Cognitive theorists concur that children need to have a role model who can guide them in their decision making.5 Teachers who integrate the disciplines of science and social studies, who look for opportunities to learn and communicate, are demonstrating citizenship to their students. We can try not to shy away from science, controversy, or real life—when they fly, crawl, or splash into the room.



1. H. Hungerford, R. Peyton, and R. Wilke, “Goals for Curriculum Development in Environmental Education.” Journal of Environmental Education 11 (1980): 42-47; D. Engleson, A Guide to Curriculum Planning in Environmental Education (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 1993).

2. D. Sobel, Beyond Ecophobia (Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society and The Myrin Institute, 1996).

3. R. Wilson, ed., Environmental Education at the Early Childhood Level (Troy, OH: North American Association for Environmental Education, 1994).

4. For example, a unit of study could be organized around the themes 8 Science, Technology, and Society and 9 Global Connections. Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994).

5. L. Chawla and R. Hart, “The Roots of Environmental Concern” The North American Journal of Montessori Teachers 20 (1995): 149-57.


About the Authors

Carole Basile is on the faculty at the University of Colorado at Denver. Cameron White is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Houston, Texas.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.