Research Summary

Children Environmental Identity Development in an Alaska Native rural context

Authentic early childhood education for sustainability reflects the needs and cultures of the communities in which it is situated

International Journal of Early Childhood
Assortment of wild blueberries and salmon berries on leaves on forest floor.

The aim of this study was to contribute to the ongoing dialogue on early childhood education for sustainability (ECEfS) by exploring children’s Environmental Identity Development (EID) in an Alaskan rural setting. The remoteness of this setting necessitates unique and collective sustainable efforts. The EID concept is based on the understanding that children’s emotional reactions and interactions with the natural world during their early years influence their developing sense of self in nature. EID, when progressing in a positive way, includes “Trust in Nature,” “Spatial Autonomy,” and “Environmental Competency.”

Approximately 60 children from a small rural Native village in western Alaska participated in this study. Most of the participating children were Alaska Native -- namely Inupiat (Eskimo). The study was conducted over a period of five days with the children playing an active role in the process of data collection and analysis. The data collection methods elicited children’s understandings, feelings, and perspectives of their experiences of being in their environment. The analysis included the children’s descriptions and interpretations of their experiences while engaged with nature. Activities on three days took place in the classroom and around the school and included drawing, writing, making leaf prints, and taking photographs.Two of the data collection days were designated field days during which children participated in “Sensory Tours” during  field excursions to a nearby nature camp.  During a Sensory Tour, a child wears a small camera while he or she freely tours or explores the environment. In this study, children participated in a Sensory Tour with at least one other child and an adult. After the tours, the children were invited to participate in recall discussions to interpret and analyze the video footage they collected during their Sensory Tours. The qualitative descriptions presented in this paper are primarily drawn from the Sensory Tours.

Findings indicated that children had a strong sense of Trust in Nature which prompted them to gain a sense of Spatial Autonomy through exploration and establishing connections with different aspects of nature. This autonomy, in turn, heightened the children’s sense of Environmental Competency, which is integral to a subsistence-based lifestyle.

This study adds to the ECEfS literature by using the Environmental Identity Development theory as a framework for considering how early interactions with nature promote empathy and skills to act responsibly for the environment. This study also highlights the unique ways sustainable behaviors might be exercised in different places around the globe. In urban settings, sustainable behaviors may focus on such activities as recycling and taking public transportation. For the children living in a rural isolated setting, harvesting food from the wilderness is an important sustainable practice. This study calls attention to the need to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing and children’s agency in ECEfS research and practice.

Green, C. (2017). Children Environmental Identity Development in an Alaska Native rural context. International Journal of Early Childhood. doi: