Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters, Richard Heraud

Creativity and Environmental Literacy

  • Sarah NussEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2262-4_183-1

A class of middle school students are out on a river, investigating shallow water habitats. The students are pulling nets through the water, shouting with excitement as blue crabs, shrimp, and fish are pulled onto the beach. These first experiences in nature inspire curiosities and interests that can stay with students for the rest of their lives, encouraging them to learn more and participate in other environmental education programs such as summer camps and public outreach programs. Over the years, these curiosities can open doors to internships, careers, and even a sustainable planet full of well-informed citizens on how they can impact the environment both negatively and positively.


With increasing human population and human interactions with the natural world, environmental issues such as higher than normal global temperatures, severe drought, and sea level rise are also increasing at rapid rates, highlighting the critical need for all humans to share the responsibility of protecting the planet. One way to do this is by creating an environmentally literate world citizenship (Franzen 2017), a citizenry that understands the local and global nature of the environment, including the individuals’ roles in affecting the environment, as well as how to adapt and mitigate new environmental changes. Environmental literacy is built in many ways, but one pathway is environmental education. Environmental education has been around for many decades but more recently has been recognized in the public for its additional benefits to students and teachers, such as teaching problem-solving and creative thinking, as well as allowing for multidisciplinary study (Badger 2010). This entry will share ways to promote creative thinking through environmental education and provides suggestions to incorporate creativity from preschool to high school and even to pre-service teacher preparation programs. Using Kim’s (2016) CATs theory, this entry will showcase how environmental education can foster creativity and critical thinking in both students and teachers. Over time, students and teachers develop curiosities and interests related to the environment and building expertise and, more importantly, promote innovative and useful ideas to help the planet through both small and big innovations.

Creativity and the Natural World

The changing world will require innovative solutions, both small and large, to address current and future issues facing the planet. Environmental education can play a pivotal role in this process throughout a student’s scholarly career by preparing students for future careers, some of which may not even exist yet, and building skills crucial for innovation such as critical thinking. Environmental education, as defined by the North American Association for Environmental Education, is “a process that helps individuals, communities, and organizations learn more about the environment, and develop skills and understanding about how to address global challenges” (NAAEE n.d., para. 1). Though traditionally seen through its closest connection to science and specifically ecology subjects, at its best environmental education is multidisciplinary and brings together math, reading, social studies, and science, while also building skills such as creative and critical thinking. This multidisciplinary study is what will allow us to work through authentic global issues facing the planet such as clean water access and climate change.

Nature is often the birthplace of creativity and imagination, offering young children new environments to explore and unlimited imaginative games with which to investigate that new habitat. Often, individuals remember moments from their childhood that took place outdoors, such as camping or fishing, and these experiences can have long-lasting impacts, such as generating curiosity and interest in the person that lasts throughout their life. While some people will continue those curiosities and interests into future careers, spending time outdoors or participating in more formalized environmental education programs and projects can foster creative attitudes and thinking skills. Utilizing the environment’s natural wonders can be the foundation for learning and building beneficial skills, such as a curious attitude, imagination, critical evaluation skills, and empathy, all of which help students and adults overcome obstacles (Toth n.d.; Kim 2016). Children first develop imaginative skills when playing outdoors, pretending to use sticks as swords, and collecting treasures, like rocks, leaves, and flowers. As children enter school, they build upon these skills to consider the natural world as a system, even creating possible solutions to difficult environmental challenges or building outbox imagination (Kim 2016). Lastly, students develop empathy through interactions with the natural world and other individuals from diverse perspectives, increasing their compassionate attitude. Students may encounter individuals, such as native populations who hunt whales as a food source, that interact differently with the environment than they do, thus forcing empathy and consideration of alternative perspectives.

Environmental education can be a model for fostering creativity by building inbox thinking, outbox imagination, inbox critical thinking, and newbox synthesis, the components of the CATs (Climate, Attitudes, and Thinking skills) theory (Kim 2016). Teachers can utilize a common curiosity built from a young age, such as the natural world, to build interest even while both the student and the teacher may have low content knowledge in the subject area (Alvarez-Garcia et al. 2015; Kim 2016). Teachers working collaboratively to combine these curiosities and interests across disciplines increase the power behind environmental education by allowing students to consider how science, social studies, reading, and math are all part of the systems thinking that must be considered when studying the environment. An example of this would be the inclusion of data collection and graphing during a field experience to a river to conduct water quality testing. By utilizing the excitement of the field experience, teachers can include multiple disciplines. Students may have to graph scientific data to practice their math skills, while reading passages about the land use of the local area to determine why the river may have poor water quality.

Inbox, Outbox, and Newbox (ION) Thinking

ION thinking is a component of the CATs theory which provides a structure to analyze pedagogy and content to support curiosities and interests of the environment (inbox thinking), generate possible solutions for environmental issues (outbox imagination), evaluate which of those solutions are more likely to be successful (inbox critical thinking), and finally to develop unique and useful solutions that will positively impact the planet (newbox synthesis) (Kim 2016). ION thinking is not linear but rather an iterative process that generates unique and useful ideas.

Inbox Thinking

At the start of ION thinking is inbox thinking or developing expertise through memorization, comprehension, and application (Kim 2016). Inbox thinking relies heavily on lower-order thinking skills, but these are skills that students likely use every day even without trying, and these skills are what are needed for today’s standardized tests. Inbox thinking can also include deep learning through memorization, comprehension, and application related to a specific topic, and when focused, students become experts in a subject over time (Kim 2016). Whereas in modern US education systems, students are expected to focus on small amounts of a wide breadth of topics, inbox thinking allows for the deep dive into the students’ personal interests.

When students are given experiences to learn and experience the outdoors, those curiosities and interests may come to light. Environmental education programs can spark these interests especially in those students that have not had prior experiences outside and may not be as familiar with nature. Hands-on field experiences, opportunities for students to learn outside by getting their hands dirty or wet, contribute to inbox thinking by generating excitement, curiosity, and interests that inspire students in the pursuit of new knowledge on the topic. For most students, a field experience, like the one described above, is unfamiliar and becomes part of inbox thinking. Students will remember or memorize the names of fish from their field experience in the river, later allowing them to apply what they have learned in a new environment where they can identify the same species. Over time and with many and varied experiences, students understand their environment and develop expertise around it, contributing to their overall environmental literacy. These experiences can be especially meaningful if they are part of the student’s local environment where they feel a more personal connection.

Another consideration for environmental education in schools is to prepare teachers to be confident and competent on the content and pedagogy of teaching outdoors from the beginning of their careers. Pre-service teacher training is one of the most effective methods of increasing confidence and successful implementation of environmental education, compared to in-service teacher professional development or environmental educators visiting schools to offer programs (Rebar and Enochs 2010). If pre-service teachers can increase their awareness of evidence-based practices for environmental education while in teacher preparation programs, including schoolyard activities, place-based education, environmental curriculum, nonformal partners, and issue analysis, the likelihood of actual implementation when they have their own classroom is much higher (Winther et al. 2010). Building teachers’ practical experiences with environmental education will impact thousands of students over time. This practical, hands-on experience for teachers could be included in pre-service teacher programs, although several barriers do exist, including few faculty with specific training in environmental education, a lack of national accreditation for environmental education and standards, and unsupportive or unresponsive institutions regarding introducing environmental education into the curriculum (Franzen 2017).

Pre-service teacher training is inbox thinking itself, as the teachers are developing self-confidence to lead students in environmental activities, and because teaching outdoors brings with it its own pedagogy, best practices, and challenges. This inbox thinking can be especially important to elementary education teachers, who teach all subjects and must therefore be generalists and may feel less confident than their secondary science teacher colleagues in science content. If teachers feel challenged or intimidated by science content personally, they may feel inept at science instruction, which can lead to minimal commitment to science content in elementary classrooms.

Outbox Imagination

While most of our learning comes from inbox thinking, outbox imagination is also a key component of ION thinking and allows for fluent, flexible, and original thinking (Kim 2016). Fluent, flexible, and original thinking means developing many unique ideas that could solve a potential environmental issue. Environmental education can encourage this outbox imagination through multiple exposures to the outdoors, surrounding students with expertise from environmental educators and allowing students to experience diverse habitats, activities, and people. Outbox imagination is also where students begin to think past possible social norms and move towards sustainable actions and behaviors, possibly even generating unique solutions to our environmental problems. Multiple exposures to a field site allow students to collect sufficient data to understand an environmental issue and then to generate unique and useful solutions. For example, field experiences could include multiple visits to local rivers to count biodiversity, comparing the varying health of the rivers while developing ideas to improve the health of one, or both, of the sites. Students may create many ideas of how to improve the health of the river (fluent thinking), generate unique solutions from each other (flexible thinking), and possibly generate new ideas or solutions that are unique and useful in solving the issue (original thinking).

For teachers interested in building their students’ outbox imagination, teachers must also utilize outbox imagination themselves, increasing their flexibility in how to teach their content, such as including outdoor learning. Teachers developing curricula and implementation plans, and also finding flexibility in how subjects are taught, are a part of outbox imagination. Teachers do not have to teach the same content in the same way each year. By being open to new perspectives and continually broadening their knowledge of best practices in pedagogy, teachers improve their outbox imagination. At professional development workshops, teachers can hear from peers about how to incorporate environmental education into existing curricula. For example, slam sessions, where teachers present a helpful resource in 3 min, generate many ideas in a short period of time; there are no questions, but rather a generated list of ideas that participating teachers can access later for follow-up questions. Another best practice for professional development is requiring teachers to complete an implementation plan for field experiences or environmental education activities to incorporate into their curriculum. Implementation plans for environmental education include everything from the curriculum and content that the field experience will focus on to transportation, funding, logistics, safety, and student tasks while in the field. Generating and planning an idea from start to finish are an essential aspect of outbox imagination, and then teachers have a document to share.

Inbox Critical Thinking

Inbox critical thinking pushes students towards higher-order thinking skills. After cross-pollination of ideas in outbox imagination, the created ideas must be analyzed and evaluated. For teachers, this can take place during planning and reflection time at professional development workshops, with team teachers at teachers’ individual schools, or personally after learning about a new method of teaching. Teachers know that building critical thinking skills is an important aspect of their curriculum and environmental education can help their students foster those skills.

In environmental education, students may be asked to consider an environmental issue and the possible solutions that were generated in outbox imagination. For the river example, perhaps students suggested a buffer to be put in place along the river to help with water quality, while another group suggested a restoration project to replace oysters in the river to help with water quality. During inbox critical thinking, students are tasked with taking the generated ideas from outbox imagination and evaluating them for their usefulness in solving the environmental issue. This type of investigation requires time and commitment and support from teachers including time in the field, time for reflection and research on the realized issues, time to generate ideas, and finally time to evaluate usefulness of the solutions. Students may have to research other places where the possible solutions have been put into place or debate the possible solutions among class members.

Newbox Synthesis

Newbox synthesis is the final step in ION thinking and involves generation of complete unique and useful solutions but also changing perspectives of how to think about certain topics. For example, it may involve thinking about environmental education holistically from a different perspective, such as considering how an environmentally literate citizenry will benefit the economy as a unique and useful way to increase funding and attention towards it. With newbox synthesis, teachers must recognize that there will be many small innovations before radical change is made, but that it is still worth pursuing. Changing curriculum and pedagogy takes time, as does teaching students, and even teachers, different ways to think. To support teachers, professional development can include real-world examples and challenges that teachers may encounter, as well as give teachers evidence-based practices behind incorporating environmental education into our schools. One-time professional development opportunities should not be expected to change teachers’ behaviors, as teachers, just like students, need multiple exposures and experiences within environmental education themselves in order to lead their students in outdoor learning.

Creative Climates and Attitudes

Soil, Sun, Storm, and Space (4Ss) form the four climates that students require to develop creative attitudes, leading to innovation (Kim 2016). Each creative climate provides the student with attitudes, resources, challenges, and support towards creativity development, and some of the creative attitudes are given as examples under each climate.

Sun Climate and Attitudes

The Sun climate is the support system that allows students to learn from their mistakes, find their passion, discover their interests, build curiosity, and promote exploration. Field investigations within environmental education allow students to discover and develop their interests and curiosities with the natural world, generating questions and considering problems found in nature. Environmental education can bolster the Sun climate, allowing students to delve into a subject area of their own interest to enhance those curiosities. Teachers must provide students with the freedom to explore outdoors, knowing that experiments may fail and solutions to environmental problems may not be found right away. Failure is part of success and expertise development. Teachers also require the Sun climate in order to continue to offer environmental education programs, though it may seem like another task to accomplish on top of other demanding responsibilities. Teachers benefit from a support system to educate them about the impacts of environmental education, including environmental education professionals and other experienced teachers. Environmental educators foster the following specific attitudes through the Sun climate:
  • Optimistic attitude: remember there is always something you can do to help the environment; regardless of the current state of the environment, be positive and model positivity that change can occur.

  • Big-picture thinking attitude: think big and beyond the barriers that may seem to exist with solving environmental issues; allow for multiple exposures to nature to see changes over time or compare habitats in different seasons.

  • Curious attitude: continually look for new environmental issues of interest to you; read books encouraging curiosity, such as Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty.

  • Spontaneous attitude: accept new opportunities, such as environmental internships, education and outreach programs, and service events, which build students’ expertise; take students outdoors when they are not expecting it, even on rainy days.

  • Playful attitude: engage in outdoor, unstructured play to enhance exploration and develop imagination; encourage students to play with found objects outdoors.

  • Energetic attitude: play outside to improve your health and learning opportunities, go on scavenger hunts to find and observe small items found in nature, all students to move and explore their environment, incorporate educational simulation games outdoors to model concepts, such as playing a game of tag to model food webs (Project WET).

Storm Climate and Attitudes

The Storm climate provides challenges to strengthen students’ expertise through opportunities to grow and respond. With challenges and high expectations, critical thinking skills are developed so that students can draw solutions. Environmental education provides practical, authentic experiences for students, such as how cities will react to the rising sea levels, and such scenarios require unique solutions. Teachers incorporating environmental education into their curriculum may encounter challenges of their own, such as funding, liability, unsupportive administration, transportation, and other barriers (Nuss et al. 2019). Discussing these challenges up front, including examples of ways to overcome them, provides teachers with the confidence to push towards inclusion of environmental education in their classroom and curricula. Environmental educators foster the following specific attitudes through the storm climate:
  • Risk-taking attitude: explore new environments, not just familiar ones, taking you out of your comfort zone; take students on adventures outside, such as canoe or camping trips.

  • Persistent attitude: continuously work on big community-level changes to positively impact the environment, such as environmental and behavior changes, as they take time.

  • Uncertainty-accepting attitude: work towards affecting change even though nature is unpredictable; use stories to connect people with environmental issues such as My Wounded Island by Jacques Pasquet, a children’s book about sea level rise and its effects on a local community.

Soil Climate and Attitudes

The Soil climate offers new and diverse experiences, cultural diversity, and new information and resources both through research and new knowledge, as well as by working with others that may have different perspectives. For some, even for teachers, outdoor experiences can be completely new, sometimes exhilarating or extremely difficult, or even scary (Hug 2010). However, participating in new experiences, learning new information, and working with new perspectives all provide context to the Soil climate. New experiences open students’ eyes to curiosities they may not have been exposed to before, such as possible career paths. Environmental educators foster the following specific attitudes through the Soil climate:
  • Open-minded attitude: be open to new outdoor experiences and perspectives; explore gardens, ponds, nature trails, and other local outdoor areas as often as possible; show students how different cultures utilize resources in different ways; encourage students to remember their fondest memories of nature from their childhood; encourage students to question regular observations throughout field investigations such as asking why the sky is blue and sharing picture books that encourage inquisitiveness such as How Do Flowers Grow by Katie Daynes.

  • Mentored attitude: find adults that are interested and knowledgeable in the environment and science and ask questions; learn from environmental educators, teachers, and other adults about their expertise; share extracurricular programs, such as camps and family events that increase expertise; connect new teachers with experienced environmental educators.

  • Complexity-seeking attitude: be flexible in considering conflicting viewpoints on environmental issues than your own; allow students to research real-world controversial topics, such as climate change or whaling, that need solutions.

  • Resourceful attitude: work with a team to determine how to use all available materials and build something new, as a class research, and learn what edible plants exist in your area; start a school vegetable garden and learn what it takes to maintain it; conduct water or energy audits to determine ways to reduce your resource use; teachers should model sustainable behaviors and attitudes to their students.

Space Climate and Attitude

Students need space and ample time to grow and develop if they are to achieve creative thinking skills and innovation. Physical space in nature can provide students opportunities to slow down and think through observations and concerns. Students must also be given time to develop critical thinking skills through coursework related to their curiosities. As a nontraditional curriculum, environmental education itself needs room to grow. The interdisciplinary nature of environmental education is nonconforming to traditional school’s linear and solitary subject-focused classes, but given the chance, it presents promise to become the norm through small innovations at the school level. Professional development workshops can offer time for teachers to consider how to fit environmental education into their own curriculum and to reflect on their own learning throughout a workshop. Environmental educators foster the following specific attitudes through the storm climate:
  • Compassionate attitude: encourage empathy and compassion for all life, big or small, from humans to other mammals to the smallest of insects; display empathy for others affected most by environmental change; share picture books that display compassion towards nature such as Penguins Don’t Wear Sweaters! by Marikka Tamura, a children’s book about an oil spill’s impact on penguins.

  • Self-reflective attitude: keep a nature journal of daily observations and findings, after time outdoors; allow students to ponder their experiences to compare knowledge and skills they were able to develop.

  • Daydreaming attitude: lie down and observe the clouds; lie on the grass and imagine what it is like to be an ant; welcome unstructured time in nature to allow students’ curiosities and thoughts to wander; allow students to physically change their viewpoint.

  • Nonconforming attitude: be the first in your school to pack a lunch with no waste; pursue passions even if they differ from social norms, sharing ideas with others to forge a new path towards sustainability; host class outdoors; assign pre-service teachers to create an outdoor environmental education program as part of their formal teaching training.

  • Defiant attitude: gather a group of friends that want to help your school be more environmentally friendly and take action to support environmental causes that you feel passionate about even if the principal does not agree at first; create new social norms by modeling environmentally friendly behavior such as recycling in the classroom.


Environmental issues are increasing at a rapid rate, suggesting the need for an environmentally literate society capable of solving these pressing current and future issues. Environmental education can address increasing environmental impacts on the planet. Students who understand their environment and their impact on it become better stewards of the environment, develop into environmentally responsible citizens, and, ultimately, create unique solutions to issues such as drought, overuse of natural resources, and marine debris. Environmental education not only benefits the environment but also directly impacts the student by improving their engagement and attention in school and promoting a healthy lifestyle. Environmental education can provide students with diverse new experiences, inspire them to be curious about their natural environment, and possibly encourage them to develop specific curiosities even at a young age. Through the CATs model, students are also developing creative attitudes at the same time as learning about how to help the environment.

To help foster these curiosities, pre-service and in-service teachers need training and support in environmental education best practices to include in their curriculum. Schools, teachers, and environmental educators can utilize environmental education to support student growth and performance both in and out of science, focusing on building creative attitudes and thinking skills, as well as systems thinking from multidisciplinary study. As field experiences for students decline as students increase in age, environmental issues are increasing, and environmental education is needed now more than ever to prepare students for the future (Rebar and Enochs 2010).


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1. The College of William & Mary WilliamsburgUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kyung Hee Kim
    • 1
  1. 1.The College of William & MaryWilliamsburgUSA