Research Summary

The architecture of children’s relationships with nature: a phenomenographic investigation seen through drawings and written narratives of elementary students

Children’s Relationships With Nature Change Over Time

Environmental Education Research

As humans, our relationship with nature is an important part of our lives, past, present, and future. A connection with the natural world, or lack thereof, is also an essential part of environmental education as practitioners in the field often strive to foster positive relationships with nature. Children are frequently the focus of environmental education programming, and therefore it becomes important to understand specifically how young children relate to and interact with the natural world. This study aimed to better understand children’s relationships with nature in order to inform as well as improve practices within the field of environmental education.

The researchers in this study focused on two primary questions: What are children’s relationships with nature, and how do these connections change as children grow from ages six to 11? To answer these questions, the researchers instructed 176 children, ages six to 11, to “draw a picture of yourself in nature doing something” and “write about your picture and your relationship with nature.” The authors then analyzed the children’s drawings and written narratives in three phases.

In phase I, the researchers first identified all of the items or elements that were featured in the children’s drawings, from trees to insects to other people. Based on this list of elements, the researchers indicated which of the features were present in each drawing and then organized the list of features a drawing had into larger categories of “setting,” “emotional tone,” “style,” and so on. In phase II, the researchers investigated developmental differences illuminated in the distribution of phase I responses and determined which of these trends were statistically significant. Finally, in phase III, the researchers performed a word frequency analysis of the written narratives to assess trends in the entire sample as well as developmental differences across grade levels.

Despite the fact that the participants portrayed their relationship with nature in unique and varying ways, the authors garnered several results from the drawings and written narratives that demonstrated similarity among the sample. Across all age groups, this study indicated that, by and large, children have a positive relationship with nature and frequently used “like” or “love” to describe their experience. Another element that did not change with grade level was the inclusion of “play or playing” in children’s drawings and narratives. Finally, the children participating in the study did not describe themselves as separate from nature, but instead described their relationship to nature in terms of family or friendship.

In contrast to these similarities across ages, the authors found several significant developmental differences present in the participating children. One such trend they reported was that younger children were more likely to include friends and family in their narratives. Younger children also included more insects and animals in their responses. By contrast, older children portrayed their nature relationship in more solitary situations and included elements such as chores, hiking, and natural areas.

In conclusion, the authors presented several implications for their work as well as mentioned the need for future research. The authors suggested that, by recognizing these developmental trends, environmental educators working with young children could capitalize on particular age-based interests. They believe that research into children’s developing relationships with nature could have important implications for curriculum, programming, and policy in environmental education. That said, the researchers cautioned that “these findings should only be contextualized to the study participants,” and that further research must be undertaken to understand how children’s connections to the natural world vary by location, culture, and socioeconomic status, among other factors.

The Bottom Line

This study used children’s drawings and written narratives to examine how young children portray and describe their relationships with nature, as well as how these relationships differ by age. Researchers found that participating children had an overwhelmingly positive relationship with nature, yet they found developmental differences among various ages: Younger children were more likely to include family and friends in their narratives, while older children were more likely to portray solitary situations. Although their results cannot be widely generalized, this research suggests opportunities for informing and improving environmental education practices based on how children connect to the natural world.