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The ontological position of children

Throughout the different studies discussed in this book, children's ways of being through their experience of sustainability learning become apparent. These ways of being are categorised here in terms of bodily connection and affect; voice, language and representation; and practical action and practices of care.

Bodily connection and affect

Children's most elemental experience of sustainability learning is their direct immersion in the materiality of their world. The ontology of direct immersion is related to what Mirabelle and Kelly have described in their understanding of nature as the substance and potential of the world. This includes the material classroom, but in sustainability learning the focus is on what children learn from the much more diverse world outside of the classroom. This immersion experience is present in all of the projects we have focused on, but is most apparent in those instances where a moment of deep engagement is attended to. A clear example of this is the video of Charmaine in which she is silently absorbed in the child-water-sand-tin relation. It is also evident in Gemma's moment of exquisite attention to a frog hidden under a log amidst a flurry of ants. A photograph shows her bent forward in intense bodily attention. Complete immersion exists before words, yet language can be formed to express meanings that might be attached to that moment. Gemma answers our questions as she contemplates the frog world with her whole being and she responds to our questions from the perspective of the frog, thinking as frog as she does so.

Sam captures this in her moment of sitting in a tree outside her home, the sweetness of the smell, the sound of birds, feel of breathing the fresh air and gesture of looking up at the sky. At Woodbridge School in Tasmania, other children also became immersed - in the mud of the wetlands, hidden inside the prickly bushes of the native garden, and intent on the mites on chicken legs. These moments erupt from the conventional forms of sustainability education. They are its excess, the spilling over of children's material relations, like the pull of the soil that disrupted the proper construction of an orchard garden. Chrissiejoy captures the power of a child's everyday immersion in place through her body memories of growing up by the Narran Lake: 'you'd wake up in the morning to birds getting a fright, taking off and making a terrible clatter, then going to sleep of a night time listening to all the birds, that lulled chatter that you hear of an evening'. The daily rhythms of the lake have stayed with her all her life and impart meaning and energy to her adult actions.

These moments of intense immersion in the materiality of the world generate strong affective states. This quality of affect seems to be the least attended to, and a most crucial aspect of, sustainability learning for children. Mirabelle and Kelly name a range of emotions including love, grief, anger, happiness and compassion, through which they understand their relations with the world. Older children have the language of emotion for this naming, while younger children are more likely to be simply immersed in this state. The concept of affect offers a way of understanding the bodily states that arise in the relation between children and world. Affect is the ability to affect and be affected by the world and places emphasis on bodily experience. Affect can only be discerned by 'the increase or decrease it causes in the body's vital force' (Spinoza, 2001, p. 158). Spinoza names 48 different forms of affect, including love and hatred, hope and fear, envy and compassion. They are all manifestations of what he describes as the three basic affects of Pleasure; Pain or sorrow; and Desire or appetite. Affect, rather than emotion, is a more apt way of referring to children's immersion in the world.

When Mirabelle and Kelly talk about emotion, it seems closer to an understanding of affect because they refer to a state of being affected by and affecting the world. This is especially evident in Mirabelle's statement that the word 'environment' is everything all mashed together, including anger and love. The concept of affect offers an important insight into understanding the powerful energies inherent in children's engagement in sustainability learning. In the instances of complete absorption affect, 'the increase or decrease in the body's vital forces' can only be inferred from the bodily state of the child. It is clear from Charmaine's immersion in the water and sand that there is an energy drawn from the relation with water and sand. A state of pleasure or replenishment can be inferred as this normally noisy and active child is completely silent and still with intense focused bodily attention. Sam's affective state is translated into words naming the different senses that come together in what communicates an almost inexpressible feeling of plenitude: 'It's Mother Nature and it's already been there and it's born there'.

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