Research Summary

‘I saw a magical garden with flowers that people could not damage!’: children’s visions of nature and of learning about nature in and out of school

Understanding Children’s Visions of Nature and their Role in Protecting It

Environmental Education Research

Environmental experiences are often central to children’s knowledge of their local communities. Building these experiences, and consequently children’s knowledge, has the potential to create a strong sense of community belonging for children and positively impact their degree of civic engagement. To help children grow into citizens connected to their community, they need opportunities to connect with nature and engage in local environmental issues. However, children are spending less time in natural spaces and have few opportunities for political involvement. This study, conducted at four schools in Portugal, used group discussions to highlight children’s views on the environment, thereby emphasizing the active role that children play in their own learning and the potential role that they could have in environmental decision-making.

In Portugal, environmental education (EE) is considered a part of citizenship education, although it does not have a specific curriculum. As a result, various primary schools and preschools have developed their own strategies for EE. This study focuses on children from four schools with different pedagogical approaches. The authors held a group discussion at each of the four schools with student volunteers. The discussions, which were recorded and filmed, involved 31 children total, ages 4 to 10. After introducing herself as a researcher, one of the authors asked children to close their eyes and go to a place in nature, guiding their imaginative thoughts with imagery and ambient music. She followed with questions about their views on nature and experiences with learning about the environment. After transcribing the focus groups, the authors used the data and their knowledge of existing theories to conduct inductive and deductive qualitative coding and analysis of the responses.

The results revealed that children have broad views of nature, witnessed countless environmental problems, and experienced many environmental learning opportunities through time spent with their families and at school. During the imagination activity, some children went to local areas, such as gardens or forests; others went to distant places, such as the Amazon. The imagined places included both real and mythical creatures, which protected these natural spaces and the plants within them. The researchers suggest that this protective instinct resulted from the environmental awareness of children and their emotional connection with nature, which made them highly critical of human actions that hurt their imagined landscapes.

The Bottom Line

Children—even those without direct exposure to traditional natural environments—are fond and protective of nature, but lack opportunities to participate in discussions that shape the future of the natural world. Although family and school experiences enable children to develop a sense of community belonging and learn about the environment, traditional environmental education curricula rarely promote political action. It is critical 22 that educators make space for emotional and experiential learning, as well as political discourse, in traditional environmental education, therefore acknowledging the importance of inclusion with nature and the right of children to influence decisions about the environment by voicing their concerns.