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Arts-based environmental education (AEE) brings art education and environmental education together in one undertaking. The approach has two essential characteristics. The first is that it refers to a specific kind of environmental education that starts off from an artistic approach. Different from other types of outdoor or environmental education which offer room for aesthetic experiences, AEE turns the tables in a fundamental way. Art is not an added quality, the icing on the cake; it is rather the point of departure in the effort to find ways in which people can connect to their environment. A second fundamental characteristic is that AEE is one of the first contemporary approaches of bringing together artistic practice and environmental education in which practitioners also made an attempt to formulate an epistemology.
The term "arts-based environmental education" (AEE) was first coined by Finnish art educator Meri-Helga Mantere in the 1990s. Mantere describes AEE as a form of learning that aims to develop environmental understanding and responsibility “by becoming more receptive to sense perceptions and observations and by using artistic methods to express personal environmental experiences and thoughts”. Artistic experiences improve one's ability to see; they help one in knowing and understanding. Therefore, she maintains that these can be of high value in learning about the environment. Mantere's description of her method of art-based environmental education can be taken as a first attempt at a definition:
"What do I do as an environmentalist and as an art teacher? To put it rather simply: I try to support fresh perception, the nearby, personal enjoyment and pleasure of perceiving the world from the heart. To achieve that, it is necessary to stop, be quiet, have time and feel psychologically secure in order to perceive the unknown, the sometimes wild and unexpected. At times conscious training of the senses, decoding the stereotype, is needed. I aim at an openness to sensitivity, new and personal ways to articulate and share one’s environmental experiences which might be beautiful, disgusting, peaceful or threatening. I support and facilitate the conversation with the environment."
In short, Mantere’s conception of AEE is grounded on the belief that sensitivity to the environment can be developed by artistic activities. As an artist, and as a teacher and therapist, she came to find it more and more important to go back to the basics of the process and skill of perception. Here, the question of how we perceive and how we receive or reject the messages of the environment is central. Important to underline - because it counters possible allegations of embracing a too Romantic view of nature – is that there is also room for the “shadow” side of experience, for feelings of disgust, fear and agony.
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