Imaginative Ecological Education

Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) aims to nurture students’ personal relationships with the natural and cultural contexts in which they live through frequent engagement of the body, emotion, and imagination in learning. To achieve this, the possibility for emotional and imaginative engagement offered by the cognitive tools approach as outlined in Kieran Egan’s theory of Imaginative Education (IE) is paired with focused attention on engaging the body and context. Unlike IE, however, this approach to education is ecological. Its aim is to engage students in the world around them.

Building on the premise that human beings perceive, feel, and think together—that they are, in David Kresch’s neat term “perfinkers”—IEE aims to develop students’ somatic, emotional, and imaginative bonds with the natural world generally, and with specific places in particular, by teaching in ways that engage students as “perfinkers.” IEE has three requirements or principles—Feeling, Activeness, and Place/Sense of Place—that come together in theory and practice to support this aim.

  • Feeling acknowledges the imaginative core of all learning and of ecological understanding. To engage emotions and imagination in everything we are teaching a cognitive tools approach is required. 
  • Activeness acknowledges the central role of the body’s understanding for development of ecological understanding. To experience one’s interconnectedness in a living world one takes time to evoke the body’s tools for learning. 
  • Place/Sense of Place acknowledges the role of one’s personal connections with real places for the development a sense of stewardship for the Earth. To nurture relationships with one’s local natural context the teacher will consider how to engage the student’s place-making cognitive tools.

IEE addresses two key problems with most approaches to environmental or ecological education. One is that ecological understanding has an emotional and imaginative core, often expressed in a sense of care or stewardship towards particular species or places or towards the Earth as a whole. At both theoretical and practical levels there is very little work in the field that acknowledges the key role of imagination in environmental learning. The second problem is the peripheral position of ecological education in the curriculum, where it tends to be tied to particular units in science or social studies, rather than a more comprehensive approach to how everything might be taught. IEE is a cross-curricular approach that addresses this problem by indicating how all topics we teach can be made imaginatively and ecologically engaging.

Here are some answers to Frequently and Infrequently Asked Questions about IEE.

Read further for a deeper understanding of IEE principles and cognitive tools.


Emotions come in many forms and endless degrees. Wonder, awe, surprise, curiosity, delight, calm, compassion, and comfortable familiarity are examples of the kinds of feelings IEE seeks to nurture in students as they encounter the natural world. Why? Because, helping students come to feel something about the world around them as they learn about it contributes to the sense of connection and care for nature at the heart of ecological understanding.

To ensure students’ emotional and imaginative engagement, teachers will employ a cognitive tools approach to teaching. Cognitive tools, as the term is used in IE, are the imaginative means in which we make sense of the world around us; they engage our hearts and minds simultaneously. So, for example, teachers of students in primary and elementary school will use story, abstract binary oppositions, metaphor, vivid mental imagery, rhyme, rhythm and pattern, games, drama and play, and the recognition of mystery, among other tools, in their teaching. These are examples of the imaginative ways in which oral language using children are engaging with the world around them. Teachers in middle and high school will focus on narrative structuring, the extremes of experience and limits of reality, the heroic, students’ sense of reality, and, of course, the sense of wonder, among other tools that come along with the development of literacy, in order to ensure the emotional engagement of their students in subject matter.

For more on cognitive tools, see Imagination in the classroom and other pages about Imaginative Education on this site.

Activeness: Engaging the Body

To do a great many things is not enough; what is important is what we do and how it happens. It is those of our actions which affect our whole nature that I call activeness.

(Arne Naess, Life’s philosophy: Reason and feeling in a deeper world. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2002, p. 76)

Simply because students are actively walking in the forest or are digging soil in a garden does not mean that they are necessarily engaged in learning or that they are developing a sense of closeness with nature. In IEE, the Activeness principle reminds us to be constantly thoughtful about how to engage the body’s tools for learning so that we may come to feel something for nature based on our immediate encounters with the world around us.

Naess (2002) distinguishes between “being active” and “activeness.” Being active involves movement of the body in activities such as play or sport, an externally manifest relationship that has limited impact on our understanding of nature. In contrast, activeness is an internally manifest relationship and potentially has the most impact on our understanding of nature. While activeness may be achieved through physical activity, it may be better characterized as “lingering in silence” or as “pause” (Naess, 2002, pp. 2-3). It may indeed appear as inactivity. Naess’s distinction between activity and activeness is useful because all too often, or so it seems, the involvement of the body in learning is of the “being active” rather than “activeness” variety.

In IEE, the Activeness principle reminds us to pause and be thoughtful about how to engage the body in learning a topic through a direct encounter with the world. In this way we may open up the possibility for our students to perceive something new, something extraordinary in the “ordinary” places in which they live. Activeness involves affording students’ opportunities to feel their connectedness with the world around them. To fulfill this principle, teachers will consider the following in their teaching:

  • How does the body participate in this story?
  • What activities can engage the learner somatically in learning about the topic?
  • How can students’ sense of relation to the world around them be engaged?

Place/Sense of Place: Engaging with Context

Everyone everywhere ascribes meaning to the spaces of their daily lives; in this sense, we are all “place-makers.” The meanings we attribute to contexts help us to situate ourselves in the world and to feel a sense of belonging.

Underlying ecological understanding is sense of place that has, at its heart, an understanding of, and emotional connection to, nature. Engaging with context, with place, the third principle of IEE, is centrally concerned with developing students’ sense of place—a personal relationship with one’s context as well as a certain depth of knowledge about it. Affective and cognitive dimensions weave together to form a sense of place that involves feeling close to nature and knowing about the soil underfoot, the flora, fauna, sources of water, and rock structures. A sense of place is valuable not only for the knowledge one gains of context but, perhaps more importantly, for the emotional bond that can form. It is this emotional bond that may inspire people to live sustainably.

Everyone everywhere can help to develop students’ sense of place in teaching. IEE is not a project for the rural teacher but, rather, for all teachers. Building on the premise that wildness or wild nature is everywhere, and that we are born with an innate sense of connection with nature, there is a potential in all contexts, whether urban, suburban, or rural, to bring the natural context into focus as one situates oneself in the world. Could this be easier in rural Saskatchewan than in downtown Detroit? Probably. Even so, IEE can help all of us nurture our students’ emotional attachments to features of their local natural community. Whether in vacant lots, local parks, or in forests, we can afford children opportunities to explore and to create special places as they situate themselves in the world.

In addition to the cognitive tools of IE, IEE makes use of at least three place-making cognitive tools: the sense of relation tool, the formation of emotional attachments tool, and the creation of special places tool. Place-making tools will take a prominent place in the imaginative ecological educator’s toolkit, supporting ecological understanding through increased knowledge of and connection to place.

Place-Making: The Sense of Relation Tool

Biophilia, if it exists, and I believe it exists, is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.

(Edmund O. Wilson, Biophilia, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984)

Awareness of our own bodies’ positioning and movement in space represents one of the earliest ways the body situates itself in the world. Proprioception (from the Latin proprius meaning one’s own, belonging to oneself, and perception) refers to the body’s awareness of its positioning in space and how different body parts are positioned in relation to one another. Knowing where our limbs are in space and how they move in terms of direction and speed has biological significance. It enables us to use our bodies to survive, to attain food and water, to find or build shelter, etc. Along with proprioception, our emotions and other senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch allow us to connect with the cultural and ecological community into which we are born. We reach out to and encounter the world through the use of the body’s tools. But what drives this engagement?

The body’s first and arguably most important place-making tool may be described as the sense of relation: the innate human desire to form relationships and, in this way, to engage with its surroundings. Human beings are not only relational animals, but are also innately ecological animals. This innate sense of “biophilia,” as E. O. Wilson (1984) first called it, is demonstrated in children’s fascination with the natural world. Children seem to have an urge to relate to nature and an innate sympathy for natural things. It may be biophilia that informs their sense of participation in the world and their desire to encounter nature. Our sense of relation may be considered the body’s tool for place-making—a force that compels us to engage with the world around us. It is out of this sense of relation that other place-making tools may develop.

Place-Making: The Formation of Emotional Attachment Tool

Children everywhere develop emotional attachments to features of the world they encounter on a daily basis. Whether it be objects such as blankets, teddy bears, articles of clothing, toys, or books, particular people, or processes, a child’s emotional attachments to features of her immediate environment seem closely tied to her emotional stability. I know many parents (myself included) who would rather lose their wallets than misplace the beloved “binky” or “bear bear.” It is the role of a child’s emotional attachment to particular objects in her environment that I explore here as a place-making (cognitive) tool. For young children the favourite object often represents a familiar, constant aspect of a “new” environment. The emotional attachment to the object can provide a needed sense of security and belonging. Because the object with which children form emotional attachments is often of their own choosing, it may also offer them a sense of control, an initial experience of a sense of autonomy in the world. In this sense, then, the teddy bear or other object is a central feature of a child’s understanding of place. A child can situate him or herself in the world and gain a sense of belonging when the teddy bear is near.

To support emotional connections with the natural world a teacher should consider how to engage children with natural things. Getting outdoors in any context, is, thus, crucial. A few ideas: Could you provide students with opportunities to “apprentice” to place—to have time to get to know at a personal level some aspect or aspects of their local natural context? Could you afford students opportunities to symbolically “adopt” different aspects of the natural world? Through opportunities to engage with their senses, to study and observe features of the natural environment, students may strengthen their sense of emotional attachment tool in a way that brings the natural world into focus. A stream, tree, grassy field, or whatever aspect of nature students are studying, may begin, in even a small way, to contribute to students’ sense of place.

To include the emotional attachments place-making (cognitive) tool in their practice teachers could consider the following questions:

  • How can students learn about the topic in a way that engages them emotionally and imaginatively with some aspect of the natural world around them?
  • How does the topic connect to the local environment?
  • What does it mean here?

Place-Making: The Creation of Special Places Tool

The sense of place is born in children’s special places.

(David Sobel, Children’s special places: Exploring the role of forts, dens, and bush houses in middle childhood. Tucson, Arizona: Zephyr Press, 1993, p. 161)

Whether it be tree houses perched precariously amongst the branches of neighborhood trees, inviting hollows in dense shrubbery, lean-to structures of scrap material in vacant lots, or a sheltered space under the jungle gym at a nearby park, children everywhere seem to love forts. Sobel’s (1993) research suggests just that: building or laying claim to special places—what he refers to in his research as forts, dens and bush houses—is a universal feature of middle childhood. In addition to helping them situate themselves in the social world, creating special places also assists children in making sense of their natural context. Special places may symbolically protect the child’s developing sense of self and may assist the child in the transition to adolescence.

We may consider the creation of special places by children of this age to be a place-making tool. Creating special places—indeed, symbolically claiming a space for oneself—can support children in situating themselves in the social and natural contexts in which they live. Depending on children’s encounters with nature and the contexts in which they have opportunities to create special places, this place-making tool has the potential to support children’s emotional connections to nature and forge an ecological sense of place in childhood, a crucial time for establishing a long-term sense of care for the natural world.

To employ the creation of special places tool in planning a teacher might consider the following guiding questions in his or her planning:

  • What aspect of the topic might be learned in a way that affords students the opportunity to explore the natural world around them?
  • How might learning about the topic support a sense of belonging in the natural environment?

A few teacher resources

Some of these resources are extensions of the resources developed for teachers using Imaginative Education (see Teacher Resources). Please refer to the IE pages for more theoretical and practical guidance on the use of cognitive tools in teaching.

Ecological Learning in Depth

The project Learning in Depth involves each child being given a particular topic to learn about through her or his whole school career, in addition to the usual curriculum, and building a personal portfolio on the topic. The concept lends itself to the goals of IEE as well. Engaging the body and its emotions through direct contact with their given topic, often in their own backyard, students gain deeper insight into their own situatedness and relationship with it.

Here are a couple of resource for teachers interested in using this approach to IEE. For further resources and practical advice, please see the pages on Learning in Depth.

A Walking Curriculum

A key aspect of Imaginative Ecological Education is simply to take learning outside. In 2018 Gillian Judson published a short practical guide to a range of “walks” that engage various cognitive tools. The “Walking Curriculum” has been picked up by many classroom teachers in BC and further afield; it is available in French and Spanish as well as English, and was recently augmented by a guide to integrating Indigenous learning principles in such activities. For more on this, see the Walking Curriculum page on this site or its equivalent on Gillian’s imaginED website.