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Caring: It's Not a Lesson, It's a Way of Life
By Ruth Wilson, Ph.D.

I grew up on a small farm in the Midwest and had daily contact with a wide variety of living things. One day, I discovered a nest of birds under the rafters of a barn. In order to get a closer look at the nest, I climbed to the top of the bales of straw. There I found four baby birds with their mouths wide open and their eyes tightly closed. Their pink, featherless bodies moved and stretched in rhythm with yearnings for the food and comfort their parents would bring. I was careful not to touch the nest or disturb it in any way, as I was concerned that my interference might affect the safety of the baby birds.

The next day, Barbara, a neighbor girl, came over to play. I told her I had found something special in the barn. I lead the way to the top of the bales and shared with her the magic of the birds in their nest. Barbara’s reaction differed dramatically from mine. She called the birds “ugly,” and then reached into the nest and picked one of the birds up by its head and threw it down towards the floor of the barn.

The memory of what happened in the barn that day still saddens me. I am sad for the way the birds were treated, but I am also sad for the apparent lack of caring in Barbara’s behavior. Barbara didn’t seem to feel any affinity for the birds or have an understanding of my sensitivity. Why were Barbara and I so different in the way we regarded life around us?

The Nature of Caring and How It Develops
We know that children learn by living. If they live with kindness and respect, they learn to be kind and respectful. If they live with love and compassion, they learn to be loving and compassionate. But if children live with a disregard for the welfare of other living things, they are likely to become callous and uncaring.

So what does it mean to care, and how might we teach our children to become caring individuals? We know that caring isn’t just another skill or concept to be taught or a set of moral precepts to be followed. Caring entails feelings of concern and solicitude for others. It also involves reasoning and values. While caring includes a willingness to sacrifice oneself for another, in its full moral sense, caring encompasses more than this. Caring also involves “a sensitive responsiveness to the other that is based on an engaged attentiveness and openness to the other’s experience” (Power & Makogon, 1996, p. 13). In other words, the emotional side of caring is informed by a true understanding of the other. This involves seeing and feeling the world as the other sees and feels it. This aspect of caring is sometimes referred to as empathy.

Caring is, in essence, a virtue that has a particular characteristic way of responding, such as being respectful, prudent, or courageous (Ryan, 1996). Virtues, or moral ways of living, are caught, not taught. “They take shape not through precept, but rather through the uncountable ordinary and informal contacts we have with other people” (Hansen, 1996. P. 60). There is certainly no single event, deed, experience, or lesson that will lead children to care or not to care. These dispositions emerge gradually and take form through experiences children have with other people (Hansen, 1996).

“Caring proceeds from an awareness of one’s relationship with the other, and this relationship brings with it a special sense of responsibility for the other's welfare” (Power & Makogon, 1996, p. 14). Caring is thus clearly rooted in connectedness or relationships (Attanucci, 1996; Killen, 1996). It doesn’t develop or exist in isolation. For children to learn to be caring individuals requires the attention and involvement of the significant adults in their lives.

Caring and Young Children
Several years ago, interviews were conducted with a group of thirty three preschool children focusing on their understandings, attitudes, and feelings regarding various aspects of the natural environment and their relationship with it (Wilson, 1994). The responses to some questions reflected attitudes of caring or not caring about other living things.

The interviews were conducted one-on-one in a setting familiar to the children. Some pictures were used to help the children understand and stay focused on the questions. One picture was a photo of three baby birds in a nest. The mother bird was standing near the nest with a worm in her mouth. The question asked of each child was, “What would you do if you were close to these baby birds?” The children’s responses included: “Catch them,” “Feed them,” “Pet them,” “Take them home,” “Hug one softly,” and “Hold them in my hand.” Other children’s responses were more disturbing. One child said that he would “Slap ‘em cause they were mean to me.” Another child said that she would “Kill them.” Other responses included: “Cut their mouths off,” “Step on them,” and “Throw them away.”

Similar expressions of violence (and non-caring) were expressed in relation to some other questions. Responses to a picture of a monarch butterfly and the question, "What would you do if you were close to this butterfly?” included: “Chase it away,” “Grab him and rip him apart,” “Smash it up,” and “Tear its wings off.”

While children’s responses to the interview questions included some expressions of care and respect, there were by far, more expressions of violence and dislike. To say that these responses prove that children are uncaring and violent would, of course, not be accurate. The motivation for why the children responded as they did isn’t all that clear. Their expressions of violence may have been related to fear. If children fear an animal, for example, they may feel a need to take control of it. Doing violence to it, especially killing it, would keep the animal from harming them.

Yet, the expressions of violence are troublesome. Perhaps they do express an uncaring and callous attitude towards other living things. Perhaps the children who said they would harm the baby birds really would carry that action out if given the chance. My childhood playmate, Barbara, certainly did.

Some might argue that caring is not natural for young children due to their immature way of thinking. Young children aren’t developmentally ready to consider the feelings and perspectives of others enough to care about what happens to them. Young children do, indeed, tend to be egocentric versus altruistic, that is, they tend to view experiences, events, etc. in relation to self versus having unselfish concern for the welfare of others.

Empathy, which is the intellectual or emotional identification with another, is an integral part of caring. And, yes, such identification may be difficult for young children to achieve. Yet, we know that the best way to guide children along the path of empathy is to introduce caring perspectives and practices on a consistent basis beginning in their early childhood years (Ryan, 1996).

For children to develop the virtue of caring, they need to be immersed in a way of living and learning which expresses, or reflects, an attitude of caring. The understanding from which parents and teachers can most effectively proceed is that caring is an outlook on life far more than it is a lesson to be learned. For teachers, this means reflecting on the ways in which “everyday classroom life is saturated with moral meaning” (Hansen, 1996, p. 7). Through reflective attention, teachers can begin identifying the everyday events occurring in the classroom which contribute to or detract from the formation of virtues (including caring) which build the character of their students (Hansen, 1996).

Guidelines, Suggestions, and Related Issues
It’s important to remember that there are two major dimensions to how children learn to care. First, children need to understand the standards and rules of their social world. They need to know that it’s wrong for people to hit other people and for people to take what belongs to someone else.

Secondly, children need to understand the feelings of others who share their social world. They need to know, for example, that if you say “mean things” to another child, that child will feel sad; or that if they pull the legs off of a grasshopper, they cause the grasshopper undue stress or pain.

The current literature offers a number of guidelines parents and teachers might follow to create environments in which children are more likely to “catch” positive ways of regarding and treating other people as well as the entire community of living things. One suggestion often presented relates to the use of children’s literature to foster positive attitudes and behaviors.

Literature can, indeed, be a particularly powerful vehicle of moral education. It brings students close to real life and encourages them to role play. Literature, however, “cannot substitute for life. Students need to learn justice and care through the practice of justice and care” (Power & Makogon, 1996, p. 16). The following guidelines and related suggestions, therefore, focus on how to make caring a way of life for children in an early childhood classroom.


1.       Introduce environmentally friendly practices, with brief explanations to the children and their families about how these practices contribute to care of the environment. For example,

·        Provide water containers (e.g., buckets, cups, etc.) at the sandpit/digging patch rather than allow a running hose that results in a waste of water.

·        Re-use used items for other purposes (e.g., egg cartons, paper bags, etc.).

·        Mend and repair rather than discard and replace.

·        Use fans and open windows instead of air conditioning.

·        Provide bins for recycling, indoors and outdoors.

·        At times, hang clothes on the line rather than use the clothes dryer.

·        Take care to ensure plants and animals are not harmed when playing outdoors. (e.g., Avoid breaking branches, stripping leaves, disturbing nests, etc.

·        Use recycled materials for art and craft activities.

·        Avoid using food items (e.g., corn meal, pudding, etc.) as play material.

·        Involve children in gardening, composting, and care of animals. In the process, ensure that what children do actually contributes to the well being of other living things.

·        Encourage children to cherish the environment, by exposing them to its beauty, mystery, and wonder.

·        Create an “environmental yard” where children have frequent opportunities to observe wildlife and interact with natural materials.


2.       Establish caring as a respected (versus undervalued) trait. For example,

·        Include references to caring in your mission statement, your stated goals and objectives, and your evaluations of children's progress.

·        Model and praise caring behaviors towards each other.

·        Handle all living things with respect (e.g., bury the dead gold fish versus flushing it down the toilet).

·        Be gentle in the use of materials to avoid breakage or damage.


3.       At all times, be a good model for children by modeling attitudes, values, and behaviors that demonstrate respect and care for ourselves, each other, and our environment.


Many teachers would agree that teaching has a moral, as well as an intellectual dimension. Many believe that they have a responsibility to not only inform students with knowledge, but also to influence them “for the good” (Hansen, 1996). For some teachers, this translates into deliberate attempts to include formal and informal moral lessons throughout the day. While such attempts may have some impact on the students, the “everyday business of the classroom is potentially as rich in moral lessons as the most ambitious curricula” (Hansen, 1996, p. 72). Teachers would do well, therefore, to closely examine the practices embedded in the everyday life of the classroom. Do such practices reflect caring and respect? If so, children are more likely to become caring and respectful individuals.


A moral imperative applicable to all of us is the need to care for others and the world. With this in mind, it would be well for us, as early childhood educators, to pay special attention to the meaning of “care” in child care. We should, indeed, be caregivers not only in the sense of caring for each child in our classroom, but also in the sense of fostering an attitude of caring in the child. Helping children become caring individuals will contribute not only to the welfare of others in their social group and the larger environment, but to the overall development of the individual child as well. The following statement by Bradley Miller illustrates this point: “Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as important to the child as it is to the caterpillar.”

Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Special Education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Dr. Wilson’s expertise is early childhood special education, and much of her research has focused early childhood environmental education. She retired from teaching and now devotes much of her time to writing.

Attanucci, J.S. (1996). Placing care in the human life cycle. Journal for a Just and Caring Education, 2(1), 25-41.

Hansen, D.T. (1996). Teaching and the moral life of classrooms. Journal for a Just and Caring Education, 2(1), 59-74.

Killen, M. (1996). Justice and care: Dichotomies or coexistence? Journal for a Just and Caring Education, 2(1), 42-58.

Power, F.C. & Makogon, T.A. (1996). The just-community approach to care. Journal for a Just and Caring Education, 2(1), 9- 24.

Ryan, K. (1996). Character education in the United States: A status Report. Journal for a Just and Caring Education, 2(1), 75-84.

Wilson, R.A. (1994). Preschool children’s perspectives on the environment. Conference Presentation: North American Association for Environmental Education Annual Conference, Cancun, Mexico.

Resources for Developing Environmental Yards and Gardening with Children Books

Let's Grow! 72 Gardening Adventures with Children (1988). Pownal, VT: Storey.

Moore, R. & Wong, H. (1997). Natural Learning. Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications.

Ocone, L. & Pranis, E. (1990). The National Gardening Association Guide to Kids’ Gardening. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Rivkin, M. (1995). The Great Outdoors. Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Walsh, P. (1994). Early Childhood Playgrounds. New South Wales: Pademelon Press.

Journal Articles
Transforming school grounds (1996). Green Teacher, 47 (entire issue).

Wilson, R.A., S. Kilmer, & Knauerhase, V. (1996). Developing an environmental outdoor play space for young children. Young Children, 51(6). 56-61.

Wilson, R.A. (1993). Enhancing the outdoor learning environments of preschool programs. Environmental Education, 46, 26-27.

Wilson, R.A. (1997). A sense of place. Early Childhood Education Journal, 24(3), 191-194.

Early Childhood Outdoors (ECO) Institute.
The Fontenelle Forest Assocation
1111 North Bellevue Blvd.
Bellevue, NE 68005-4000

Project WILD
5430 Grosvenor Lane
Bethesda, MD 20814