Research Summary

Fostering children's connection to nature through authentic situations: The case of saving salamanders at school

Authentic conservation project is used to promote an enduring positive relationship with nature

Frontiers in Psychology

The aim of this research was to increase understanding about if and how children’s connection to nature might change by participating in a nature conservation project and to determine if this shift persists over time. Connection to nature in this context is defined as “one’s affective, experiential relationship to the natural world.”

In 2015, a group of 10-year-old children participated in a salamander conservation project during the school day in Stockholm, Sweden. The project ran over a two-month period and focused on saving an endangered species of salamanders. A pond near the children’s school is one of the most important breeding sites for two species of salamanders, one being the endangered great crested newt. While the pond is an ideal breeding habitat for the salamanders, their annual migration to the pond puts them at considerable risk of falling into a concrete wading pool adjacent to the pond. Once falling into the pool, the salamanders have no way to escape. Unless rescued, they’ll die. Rather than removing the pool, which is an important recreational resource for the community, local authorities asked the school for help in saving the salamanders. The school agreed to engage fourth-grade students in the Salamander Project every year during the breeding season. Students who volunteer (60-70 early) spend their lunch break looking for salamanders near the wading pool. After recording the number, species and sex of the salamanders, the students release them into the pond. The teacher then sends daily reports to a biologist involved with the project.

Researchers used two waves of data collection to examine the impact of the project on students’ connection to nature. Measures for each assessment period included written questionnaires and semi-structured interviews with the students. Wave 1 assessments were conducted immediately after students participated in the project; Wave 2 assessments took place exactly two years after they participated in the project. Researchers also conducted nine field observations and participated in a community salamander event. Both the interviews and questionnaires focused on (1) what the children remembered and what they learned from the project, (2) whether their view of salamanders, other animals, and nature generally had changed with the project, and (3) whether their connection to nature had changed with the project. Data analyzed for this study included responses from 25 interviews and 57 questionnaires from Wave 1 and 24 interviews and 49 questionnaires from Wave 2.

Findings indicated that “children developed sympathy for salamanders and increased concern and care for nature.” Findings also showed that these sentiments persisted 2 years after participating in the project. Children’s responses indicated that they developed new understandings and new skills relating to their engagement with nature. Their contributions to a real area of concern seemed to instill a sense of pride and commitment on the part of the children. They described the experience as being deeply meaningful and enjoyable. Programs aiming to connect children with nature can look to this study as an example of how authentic nature situations close to urban schools can be used to engage students in meaningful ways. Such engagement can, in turn, support enduring positive relationships with nature.