Interdependence: A Concept Approach to Environmental Education

Grade Level: K - 3

Environmental education involves more than conservation and awareness. In its fullest sense, environmental education concerns the individual's relationship to his or her total environment. -- including the built environment as well as the natural. Every course taught has something to do with how people relate to each other and to their world.

From every corner of the curriculum, there can emerge the skills, attitudes and information children need for a creative approach to their environment. The major goal of environmental education is helping students learn to use all their senses to "connect" them with their natural and human-made surroundings. Each of us shapes and is shaped by the environment. The challenge to educators is to provide an education that will enable people to recognize areas of individual and group responsibility for their surroundings. They can then work intelligently toward structuring a healthy environment, instead of passively accepting whatever they find around them. Such a goal becomes increasingly vital as our world becomes more crowded and more urbanized.

This outline uses the concept of interdependence, that is, mutual dependence -- parts of the whole depending on each other -- as the organizing theme. This concept of interdependence is essential to any understanding of the nature of our world. It is important to view the planet as a single system, with all living things dependent on the same inter-related life-support systems. Danger to one portion of one support system is danger to the entire system. When we deal with local issues, then, we should try as much as possible to place these in the global setting -- to see water pollution as a problem for the living things that depend on, say, Lake Erie, but also a threat to the entire Earth water system. It is also just as important for children to know more about their immediate surroundings. The classroom, the playground, the home, the neighborhood -- they should see the local setting as the environment they are most involved in and responsible for.

In terms of awareness, then, the goal is to see the total world picture. In terms of responsibility and effective action, our goal at this age level is to appreciate and improve our own space on earth.

If you think of interdependence as a vocabulary word, it's a little frightening; but as an organized collection of ideas, or, a concept, it's much more manageable and teachable.

Children, for example, are quick to grasp the meaning of systems -- the idea that parts must function with respect to each other for the whole thing to work. They can also understand that systems can be composed of a number of subsystems, as in a car or a human body. The understanding of systems is a good beginning to the understanding of interdependence. This idea can readily be applied to objects around children, and then to human systems and systems in the natural environment. From the start, the knowledge of systems becomes a connecting link, a concept that helps students see relationships among a wide variety of phenomena. This beginning understanding, then, helps children to organize information; it also helps them see relationships between themselves and the world around them.

The more practice children have with the concept the more they will be able to use it as a tool to gain new insights into topics they study. They will be better equipped to deal with more complex systems in later years.

Using This Outline

Use this outline as a "transparency" to be laid over your existing curriculum. It's designed to show you where you can add important elements to what you already teach, rather than to suggest radical changes.

Skim through this material. You are likely to find major ideas or topics that touch on what you already teach. For these, read the suggestions for development of study questions, activities, and lessons. Chances are you are already doing some of these. But some of the other ideas can be added to your lesson plans to provide the students with a firmer understanding of the concept.

For each topic or idea, don't feel you have to follow all the suggestions. Instead, select those which adapt most easily to your course materials and teaching practices.

Getting Started


To understand the nature of systems, and to apply this knowledge to familiar objects and relationships.


Students will:

Understanding Systems and Beginning to Apply Systems Knowledge

A key place to begin understanding interdependence is with the idea of systems. This learning will be fun and exciting, and will involve the children in true discovery learning. You don't have to deal with systems every day. But, where appropriate, remind the class of their systems activities and have them use the ideas. Here are some beginning possibilities.

When learning about animals in stories or texts.

  1. Ask the children to point out ways that baby animals depend on parents.
  2. Do members of animal families depend on each other? In what ways? (protection, food, etc.) Is an animal family a system? How would you know? (Parts must work together.)
  3. How do animals work together to meet their basic needs? Observe animals in real life or a film and have the children look for ways they help each other. Or, study the cooperative work of ants: Place a tablespoon of sweet syrup in an empty lot or a corner of the playground. Post pairs of students as observers. When an ant discovers the treasure, what does it do? (It will bring other ants until an entire colony is at work. You can explain that the ants "communicate" by secreting a chemical which other ants follow.)
  4. How do animals depend on their environment? Use pictures, and have volunteers point out ways animals depend on the environment for food, for protection, often for shelter.
  5. Point out ways that animals help the environment. You might talk about nature as a large system, made up of smaller systems. Or introduce the term ecosystem. Children can discover ways animals help keep a natural system in balance, i.e., earthworms as cultivators; beavers as builders of dams; predators as population controllers; scavengers as waste disposers. All animals provide food for others (or some other service to the system) and, when they die, return important chemicals to land or water.

People systems

  1. Families as systems. For reinforcement, use stories and talk about ways family members depend on each other.
  2. Social studies texts are likely to deal with play, school, or work groups. Where appropriate, ask the class if the groups are systems. What makes them systems? What parts do different individuals have to perform? What can we do when a system isn't working well?

Neighborhoods and communities

The students can become aware of larger and more complex systems as they learn about neighborhoods and communities. Emphasize the idea of depending on each other, not just depending on others.

  1. Make a mural of "Things We Depend On" either in the neighborhood or community. Children can draw their own pictures. Some classes become involved in resources and quickly discover that things we get in the community come from far away. (This discovery, if made, helps children sense the size and complexity of systems we belong to.) Ask the children how they are part of the system in the mural.
  2. Maps of neighborhoods and communities are good for showing systems. Streets, for example, form systems. Simple work with maps will help visualize systems.
  3. Divide the class into groups, supplying each with three or four pictures showing such items as delivery trucks, farms, fishermen, store clerks, firemen. Ask each group to make a list of what we need these people or things for. The groups can then report their findings to the class. Point out that your town or city is a system. The jobs we depend on are parts of the system. Ask what would happen if one part didn't work, like firemen or truck drivers. After the reports, ask if each of these objects or people depends on us and our families. As a follow-up, children could find out what their parents' occupations are and tell how they fit into the community system.

Exploring Nature: We Depend on Plants. Do Plants Depend on Us?


To understand ways humans depend on elements of the natural environment and to recognize humans' responsibility for the natural environment.


On the basis of lessons focusing on the concept, students will

We depend on trees

  1. Trees as systems: use pictures in science texts to have children point out the parts of the tree system. Ask: What other things (or systems) does the tree system need? (Water, soil, sun)
  2. Provide pictures of different kinds of trees, forests, aspects of the logging industry, trees at a sawmill, boards in a lumber yard. Ask the class what we need or use wood for.
    1. There will be some quick answers, but children often have difficulty distinguishing wood from non-wood products.
    2. Have the children feel, touch, tap wooden objects in the classroom. You might point out that you can sometimes tell what kind of tree was used. (A lumber yard can give you color cards showing the grains of different woods; two common varieties good for contrast are oak and dine.) Have children find objects at home made of wood and describe them.
  3. Using pictures and/or text materials, develop a lesson to show that we depend on trees for paper, packaging, beauty, furniture, boxes, oxygen.
    1. Needing trees for oxygen can be developed in a science lesson. (Note: Oxygen production through photosynthesis may not be covered in your science texts. You can simplify by pointing out that all animal life, including humans, need oxygen in the air they breathe. Plants help all living things by producing oxygen. Your science text is likely to have a simple experiment to show plants making oxygen -- usually using the water plant called Anachris.)
    2. Then deal with trees as objects of beauty. Show pictures of woods and forests. Ask the children to imagine themselves in the picture. What do they see , smell, hear, feel? This can also be used for story writing.
    3. Next, have them imagine the scenes if all the trees were gone. How have things changed without trees? Notice if anyone asks what would happen to the oxygen supply. If this comes up, take time to point out that we depend on the total air system of the whole planet. You might ask what would happen if there were no plants at all to produce oxygen.
    4. Supply old magazines for the children to find pictures of ways we need trees; use the pictures for a bulletin board display.
    5. For enrichment, use story or activity books about trees and other plants.
  4. Making choices: Should people help trees?
    1. Use pictures of lumbering and saw mills to show how we get the logs we use for wood products. Ask the class to tell why we have to be careful not to use trees too fast.
    2. Show other pictures of de-forested hills and trees damaged by air pollution. You can also show how construction of highways and buildings removes trees. Additional pictures should show what the lumbering industry does to replant trees. Ask: What should we do to help trees? You may want to use this to launch a tree-planting activity, if this can be arranged with school administrators. The project will certainly give the children the feeling that they are making an important contribution.

We depend on other plants

  1. Using pictures and yarn, help the class make bulletin board lists of foods that come from plants. Choose a basic food, like corn or wheat, and ask children what it is used for. Corn, for example, can be used for things like corn bread, creamed corn, popcorn, cereal, syrup, corn starch (useful for puddings, etc.). Children can check the ingredient labels on packages at home for more ideas.
  2. You can expand understanding of interdependence by dealing with some of the systems involved in the journey of corn or wheat from farm to breakfast table.
    1. Through pictures or text materials you can help the class list different systems that bring us breakfast. The grain is milled, it's shipped by rail or ship; a cereal company adds other ingredients; packaging is needed; you might even mention advertising -- how do we find out about new cereals?; trucks or trains bring the cereal to our community, eventually to the local grocery store.
    2. Questions to pose: Do we depend on many people for our breakfast? How do they depend on us? Can people far away depend on each other? Do we have to see or know the people we depend on?
    3. It's important for children to understand many examples of interdependence, not merely those involving environmental concerns.
  3. By the second or third grade course material usually gets at the idea that there is often conflict over meeting basic needs, i.e., competition for food. Plants and animals compete for the same resource; (light, space, food, water). Some ideas to develop:
    1. Read the story of Peter Rabbit. What kind of conflict did Peter have with the farmer? Do humans compete with animals for food? What are some other examples besides rabbits?
    2. If the children have already had some experience with ecosystems or the balance of nature, you can raise this question: would it be a good idea to get rid of all the animals that eat the same food we do?

Meeting Basic Needs

At some point in the K-3 curriculum, children learn about ways plants and animals meet their basic needs. You can use these studies to develop understanding of important environmental topics, including the effects of overcrowding.


To demonstrate that plants and people have certain basic needs including the need for space.


Students will:

  1. Use a study of growing plants in pots to illustrate the needs of plants for light, water and space.
    1. Plant seeds (beans or peas) in four different pots. Thin the sprouts in all the pots but one, which will be used to show the effects of crowding. This pot should have plenty of seeds.
    2. Making guesses: Tell the class that pot #1 will not be watered for a few days. Cover pot #2 with cardboard or foil to block out sunlight. Point out that pot #3 is very crowded. Pot #4 will receive normal amounts of water, light, space. Ask the children to guess what each pot will look like after four days. You might write the guesses on the board.
    3. After four days, observe the differences. (It may take longer to show the effects of crowding.) Ask why each of the first three pots did poorly. What did pot #4 have that allowed it to do better? (light, water, space)
  2. On a field trip: Around the school or in a field, find examples of plants which have trouble meeting their basic needs.
    1. Examples: plants that aren't receiving enough water (perhaps too sheltered by trees or buildings); plants that aren't receiving enough light (turn over rocks or board to reveal the feeble growth underneath); plants that struggle for space (a plant pushing through a crack in the pavement; a tree that grew too close to a building).
    2. Compare plants and people. Talk about, or observe, examples of crowding (a traffic jam, or a long line of people in a store.) Use the sample lesson on crowding. Questions to pose: How do people feel when they're crowded? Do people need space, too?
  3. By grades 2 or 3, you can lead into textbook accounts of crowded conditions. Have the class consider what problems there could be over food, water, and shelter. If there are examples of crowding in the classroom or school, like long lunch lines, talk about ways the situation could be mad better.

People and Land: How Are We Parts of the System?


To understand that modern technology gives humans more and more control over the natural environment, and also greater responsibility for protecting that environment.


On the basis of lessons focusing on the concept, students will:

  1. Begin with simple tools (or technology) in the study of primitive tribes or early humans.
    1. Using pictures (and your text), ask the class: How do tools help people meet their needs? Or, how would people acquire food, clothing? Do these tools change the land? Once farming is involved, the changes will be more evident. Children will observe that the soil is turned over, rocks and plants removed, new plants cultivated and protected. How did farmers depend on farm animals? (for food, clothing, work) How did the animals depend on people? (food, water, protection)
    2. Use pictures of modern farms to show ways modern technology allows farmers to make greater changes.
  2. Modern tools.
    1. On a field trip: Observe a construction site and ask volunteers to point out ways that different tools change the environment -- bulldozers, jack hammers, steam shovels, etc.
    2. Obtain pictures of your community as it looked in the past 50 or 100 years ago (the local historical society should have plenty to choose from). Compare are these with other photo; taken recently. (Try the Chamber of Commerce; or take the class on a photo-taking trip of your own.) Make lists of how tools were used to change the natural environment: buildings, roads and streets, parking lots, shopping plazas, etc. Can the class find anything in today's pictures that looks similar to the past? (some buildings; perhaps parks; natural features like hills or rivers)
    3. Evaluate changes made by tools. Ask the class to find changes that make life better or more convenient (e.g. highways for easier travel; stores for convenience). Are there changes that don't make things better? (evidence of air or water pollution, crowding, fewer trees, parks, open spaces)
    4. Have the class consider how the community could be made better if we planned better. You might make this more concrete by talking first about how your classroom or school was planned. Consider, too, any plans you have for changing the room or any plans that exist for school remodeling. The school has changed as the community grew. See if the children can sense that many changes in the natural environment also came about because there were more people than in the past. Talk about the children's rooms at home as spaces they can plan. What would they like to do to make their rooms more pleasant? Now deal with the question of how the community can be made more pleasant. Would more trees help? Or parks? What about playgrounds or cleaner water?
    5. Encourage children to draw pictures of how they would like their community or neighborhood to look.
  3. Machinery and waste products -- sources of pollution.
    1. How machines work -- remind the class of some of their systems lessons. Show pictures (or models) of machines that show different parts functioning. Ask if anyone can describe some of the working parts that make an automobile a system. (wheels, engine, starter, brakes, battery, etc.) What has to be added to make the automobile run? (fuel or a source of energy) Do all machines need some source of energy? Consider machines, tools, and appliances at home. What do they use for energy?
    2. Point out that whenever fuel is used, there are waste products smoke, gasses, soot, etc. Even electricity, which appears so clean, requires energy to be produced and creates pollution. Identify visible waste products in the community or neighborhood. (smoke from factories, incinerators, furnaces, vehicle exhausts) You can demonstrate vehicle wastes by holding a cloth over the exhaust pipe of a running automobile for a few seconds. Warn the children never to try this themselves.
    3. Use text, pictures, or audio-visual materials to identify various examples of pollution. Make sure land is included as well as water and air.
    4. The class by now can consider this question: As more people live in one place, why are there more waste products? Compare pictures of a farm, a village, a suburb, a city. Which uses more machines? Which will produce more wastes?
  4. Helping the systems that make up the community.
    1. Go back to the photographs of the community, or, use a large wall map that shows parks and other features or else a large area map. Ask the class to make a list of things made by humans. (buildings, roads. etc.) Make another list of things in the natural environment: trees, parks, water, grass, etc. Be sure to include air. Ask if we depend on all these things -- things in nature as well as human-made things. Questions to pose: How is this community a system? What are its parts (on the list -- plus people and animals)? What can go wrong with the system? (Recall the wastes from machines.) Do we have to be careful to keep the whole community system in good order?
    2. What can we do about parts of the system that aren't working too well? Taking care of the land -- what can children do? Taking care of the water -- children can consider ways to conserve water in the classroom and at home. You might want to get into the issue of noise pollution here, too. What about air pollution? Consider where air pollution goes. The students can grasp the idea that their community system connects up with all others. Problems in one, like air pollution, spread to others. One warning, though the problem of air pollution is farther removed from children's control than noise, land, or water pollution. Things like turning off lights help, but it may be more effective to go back to the idea of how we can plan our community better.
    3. Many social studies texts will deal with the role of the government in planning a healthier community.
    4. You can talk about plans people can make or some proposals that are being made locally. You could help the students write a letter to appropriate government representatives about changes.

Source: Interdependence, Environmental Education, Interdependence: A Concept Approach, (Part A, K-3 Handbook). David C. King, ed. Center for War/Peace Studies, New York, NY, 1976.

Proceed to the next lesson

Return to the American Forum's Materials Index Page