Research Summary

Children in nature: Sensory engagement and the experience of biodiversity

Childhood engagement with natural materials promotes understanding of biodiversity

Environmental Education Research
2016

This paper integrates the findings of two different studies focusing on children’s sensory engagement with nature. One study used semi-structured interviews with thirteen Swedish university-aged adults to explore their memories of childhood experiences with nature. These interviews, lasting an average of 45 minutes, were recorded and transcribed. The adults participating in the study had indicated in advance that, as children, they had spent time collecting items in nature.

The other study used direct observations of thirty-four children (ages 1 – 6) in Norway as they played and explored in an outdoor kindergarten. The children were observed on 30 occasions of 5–7 hours each over a 10-month period. Photo documentation and informal conversations were also used as sources of data.

Four key themes were identified through an analysis of the interview responses: sensory experience, diversity, ecological ideas, and environmental understanding. Once identified, these themes were then used to review the adults’ interview statements and to analyze the field notes from the children’s observations.

References to sensory experiences were found repeatedly in the adult interviews and in the field notes of the kindergarten observations. Diversity -- the second key theme – was reflected in the adults’ and children’s interest in finding natural objects they considered “different,” as in unique, strange, exotic, or especially interesting. In reference to the third and fourth themes -- ecological ideas and environmental understanding -- many of the adult participants shared examples of how collecting natural materials helped them understand broader environmental connections and ideas. These themes were also evident in many of the children’s behaviors and conversations, including the way they handled small animals with care and expressed an understanding of the need to keep the animals in an environment where their biological needs could be met.

The researchers conclude from these findings that actual childhood interaction with variation and diversity with living and non-living elements of nature are important for children’s learning about biodiversity. They also note how these findings underscore the importance of childhood access to nature.