Engaging Children and Parents in Flood Preparedness through Participatory Learning

Williams, S., McEwen, L. J., & Quinn, N. (2017). As the climate changes: Intergenerational action-based learning in relation to flood education. The Journal Of Environmental Education, 48, 154 - 171.

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of flooding around the world. Therefore, today's children are especially likely to have to cope with flooding within their lifetimes. But much of the research on effective ways to communicate flood preparedness focuses on adults, and does not explore methods for teaching children. This study addresses this gap by evaluating whether action-based, participatory learning was effective in engaging children aged 7-9 in flood preparedness. Additionally, the authors examined the possibility that children could spread this new knowledge to their families through intergenerational learning.

Previous research suggests that when children participate in planning for flood safety, they are better able to cope with a real flood mentally and emotionally. For this reason, the authors decided to evaluate the effectiveness of participatory activities in the classroom. To ensure that the children who participated in the research were treated as having agency and as beneficiaries of the learning experience, researchers made efforts to deeply involve them in the research process. This approach is referred to as the “new sociology of childhood.”

The study took place in England, where the researchers selected two schools that were at risk for flooding. Researchers recruited a total of 68 children between the ages of 7 and 9 to participate. First, researchers conducted participatory activities with the children in small groups, including a presentation, group discussion, and the creation of a “treasure box” for crucial flood preparedness information and items. Although they were divided into groups, all children took part in the same activities.

Next, researchers interviewed the children to examine what they learned from the activity, whether they discussed the lesson with their families, and what they did with their treasure boxes. Finally, researchers conducted interviews with roughly one third of the children's parents and guardians to evaluate the extent to which families knew about their children's flood preparedness activity, and whether they had learned anything from discussing it.

The authors concluded that the creative, participatory lesson successfully engaged children in flood preparedness. For the most part, children remembered content from the activity with a high level of detail. However, results demonstrated that materials must be carefully tailored to the appropriate age range, as younger participants were less likely to fill their treasure boxes with flood-relevant items than older children.

Seventy-five percent of the children reported discussing flooding with family members after the activity. To understand the impact of these conversations, the authors identified recurring themes and patterns in the parental interview transcripts. This analysis revealed that parents who reported that their child was highly engaged with the school activities were more likely to report having learned about flooding from the child. However, researchers found a disconnect between opinions and actions around children's role in household flood preparedness. Parents tended to say that they believed children should be involved in helping prepare for a flood, but were reluctant to engage their own children at home, believing the children were too young, or would be unable to handle such a heavy topic. Most of the parents also considered flooding to be either a problem in the distant future or in remote locations, and therefore not an imminent threat to their families.

These results suggest that participatory activities are likely to be helpful in engaging children and families in flood preparedness. However, since the study only worked with children from two British schools, other factors may influence engagement and learning, such as geographic location and social structure. More research would be helpful in evaluating this teaching strategy's effectiveness in North American contexts. Additionally, different teaching strategies likely have different effects on children of different ages.

The researchers recommend that educators involve children in age-appropriate, creative, participatory activities to help them engage with flood preparedness and other potentially worrisome topics. Additionally, the authors hypothesize that parents' tendency not to consider flooding an imminent threat arose from their association of school projects with benign academic pursuits as opposed to real-world personal safety. Therefore, the authors suggest conducting similar flood preparedness programs in more informal settings, which could help underscore flooding as an issue relevant to that specific time and place.

The authors caution that parents in areas of higher socioeconomic need may have less time and energy available to engage with their children about flood preparedness. Teaching strategies other than intergenerational learning may be better suited to these contexts. Further research could help illuminate such strategies.

The Bottom Line

<p>Teaching children about flood preparedness is important, especially as climate change is expected to increase the frequency of flooding within their lifetimes. This study examined the effectiveness of a promising teaching method for engaging children and their families with this topic. Results suggest that the participatory activity encouraged children to care about flooding, and also had some success in engaging parents in flood preparedness discussions. The authors recommend that educators—including school teachers, informal educators, and nature connection practitioners—use age-appropriate participatory lessons and activities, particularly in informal educational settings, and encouraging children to engage their families on the subject.</p>

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