EARTHSINGING IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD:
Singing Environmental Songs with Children
by Dave Orleans, the Earthsinger (and semi-retired park naturalist)
Sometimes it’s awfully hard to find Mother Nature after the makeover we humans have given her over the years. In any given urban center, the search for a single healthy tree, let alone any substantial evidence of our natural heritage, can be a long, frustrating experience. When you walk down a suburban street and can’t tell when you are leaving one town and entering another, except for the sign that tells you so, it can prove difficult for young people to realize that they are part of a natural place of any uniqueness or importance.
I worked as a park naturalist for over 30 years. During that time I used all the tried-and-true interpretive methods in my work. When I led school classes on nature walks through the surrounding neighborhoods, I challenged kids, teachers and parents to see their connection to the natural world right in their own backyards, even more effective than a field trip to a park or forest, where everything is expected to be more “natural.”
In 1981 I heard Pete Seeger, Bill Staines and David Mallett at the Philadelphia Folk Fest, and realized that there was a great deal of environmentally-themed music waiting to be discovered and sung. Songs like “The Garden Song”, “A Place in the Choir”, “Garbage”, and “Sailin’ Up, Sailin’ Down” became the roots for my growing interest in merging songs with the traditional nature programs I’d been conducting for 10 years already.
As a musician and songwriter, I began to find, collect, create and perform music which taught about environmental concepts and issues, which I call “Earthsinging,” with the intention of compiling a database of songs and teaching ideas that could help educators to include music and song in their explorations of environmental concerns.
After completing a Master’s Thesis on music in Environmental Education, I have continued to collect songs and activities of value for teaching. With over 3,000 songs collected and categorized (and many more to be discovered), I have found that songs that focus on some aspect of the environment have been written for every musical genre, age-level, subject matter and region of the world.
However, the songs that I gravitate toward tend to be simple without being simplistic, and direct without being preachy, about things that children can connect to easily in their own experiences. And, of course, the songs that are the most fun to play with and add to with an audience will continue to be fresh and enjoyable for them (and me).
I have always loved to sing outdoors, so that the natural sights and sounds of the environment can creep into the experience, and can be the springboard for other songs and conversation about how our world works. And while we’re at it we might try to make some music with a piece of grass, or an acorn top, or listen to the wind through the leaves.
I am convinced that well-chosen songs can be effectively used in an educational context to reinforce the notion that only when we can understand and appreciate the natural worth of our own backyards and neighborhoods will we be motivated to be concerned and committed to helping protect the health of the larger environment.
I am delighted to be part of the team that is now in the process of revising and expanding the “Environmental Songbook” on the Children’s Music Network’s website. While you are here, why not take a “nature walk” through CMN’s continually growing selection of environmental songs for children.
Excerpted from an article published in Pass It On! #29, Spring 1998, edited and updated December, 2009 and October, 2015.
CMN's Environmental Songbook is a compilation of songs that promote respect and responsibility for the environment. You'll find these songs inspiring, fun and educational not just for children, but for the musicians, teachers and other adults who sing with them.