Research Summary

Bringing the jellyfish home: environmental consciousness and ‘sense of wonder’ in young children’s encounters with natural landscapes and places

Young Children’s Embodied Encounters with Nature

Environmental Education Research

Understanding how young children develop an awareness of the natural world is vital to creating effective environmental education programs. However, few researchers have studied how embodied experiences, with hands-on interactions in natural spaces, impact the ways in which children relate to and think about the environment.

This study investigates how children develop a sense of wonder and environmental consciousness when playing in nature. To frame an understanding of the ideas “sense of wonder” and “environmental consciousness,” the author drew on concepts from the work of philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1962), specifically about the body as the main way people make sense of the world. Embodied sensory interactions are a vital part of how children construct their relationship with nature. Children’s sense of wonder is connected to their sensory interactions with an environment and their emotional attachment to that space. The author considered environmental consciousness as a sensory openness toward a natural space and the creatures that inhabit it.

The author collected data through an ethnographic field study of Norwegian kindergarteners. The fieldwork involved 34 children (15 girls and 19 boys) from ages 1 to 6. All of the children were ethnic Scandinavian. The researcher accompanied the children on their outdoor play periods in two environments: (1) a small, uninhibited island in the fjord that included a long-term settlement until 1912; and (2) a woodland area around a campsite, with rope toys and wooden shelters. Following these children for 30 days, the author recorded field notes and informal conversations, and she also took photographs.

On the island, the children explored the coastline, as well as the inland forest and some of the tunnels and buildings left over from when the area had been inhabited. In the woodland area, children played among the structures, and explored the trees, rocks, and caves around the campsite. Based on her field observations, talking with the children, and her photographs, the author constructed two main analyses: narrative maps and narrative accounts.

For the narrative maps, the author drew maps of the island and woodland areas, placed landmarks where children played, and marked where significant events occurred. For the narrative accounts, she constructed three main stories of children exhibiting a sense of wonder and developing an environmental consciousness.

Narrative #1, “Bringing the jellyfish home,” involved children on the island discovering a great number of jellyfish washed ashore during a low tide. Led by one boy, ten children touched and examined the creatures, eventually deciding to pick them up and return them to the water. Narrative #2, “Lilla Billy,” involved children at the campsite who were intrigued by a small, common bug, which they named Lilla Billy. The children tried to keep the bugs as pets, carefully putting them into pens they had constructed with leaves and sticks. Narrative #3, “The Bakugas and the knights,” saw children creating a story about a tunnel on the island, imagining a monster, the Bakuga, who lived in the tunnel. The children moved between the tunnel and the beach, playing with the sand as a way to handle the monster, with many children adding to the story over a number of weeks.

The Bottom Line

Embodied nature experiences offer a unique way to help children develop a relationship with the environment. In particular, giving children the chance to experience natural spaces for themselves, while using their senses and engaging in tactile play, may help them develop a sense of wonder about nature and an environmental consciousness. Educators would benefit from using local natural spaces not just for structured environmental education lessons, but also for unstructured play and exploration, allowing children to engage and interact with nature around them on their own terms.