Environmental educators can create safe spaces for gender exploration and identity development

Decker, A. ., & Morrison, S. A. (2021). Decoding gender in nature-based education: perceptions of environmental educators. Environmental Education Research, 1-16.

Environmental education is rooted in providing a space for children to play and explore outside while learning and becoming more connected to themselves and the natural world. Though the benefits of nature-based education (NBE) are well researched and understood, the role of gender in environmental education and the proliferation of gendered norms through it are less so. Especially in the current state of people worldwide advocating for gender equity and multidimensional identities amid growing gender-based violence, clarifying how children's understanding of gender can be influenced by participating in NBE is important for their safety and well-being. By interviewing environmental educators, the researchers of this study sought to conceptualize the ways environmental educators and the NBE setting contribute to and can dismantle gender stereotypes to facilitate the dynamic gender exploration and social development of children.

The increased rate of disconnect between children and nature due to technology and standardization of testing at schools has made environmental education more imperative than ever before. Giving children the space to learn and play outside positively affects physical, mental, intellectual, social, and emotional health. Nevertheless, the underlying social context of gendered norms can come to light when learning and playing outdoors, whether intentional or not. Children are influenced by gender and other social constructs from an early age, which are an inherent part of their experience at school, at home, outside, and through media. NBE includes risky play, defined as exciting modes of play that can result in physical injury, and developing the care for other living and nonliving things. These foundations have largely been socially constructed to represent masculinity and femininity, respectively. For example, risky play is associated with strength and bravery which are typically associated with boys and men. Care and compassion are typically seen as traits that girls and women possess. This gendered outlook of the world can be harmful to children and perpetuates binary identities, excluding those who do not and should not fall into one category.

The researchers used a combination of social media (Twitter) and direct email to advertise the study and solicit responses to an online survey. The researchers also asked their contacts to forward the information to others. The survey yielded 20 phone and virtual interviews with environmental educators. There were no requirements of participants other than to be a self-identified environmental educator. The interviewees had various job titles, worked with a diverse age range of children, and collectively represented six countries including the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom. After the semi-structured interviews on perceptions of gender and teaching children were conducted, each interview transcript was analyzed to identify important concepts, words, and phrases.

Seven themes emerged from the interviews: 1) educators were not confident in answering questions about the intersection of gender and their work with kids; 2) interviewees shared more stories of girls acting in traditional masculine ways more often than boys acting in traditional feminine ways; 3) educators typically use male/female binary language; 4) nature provides freedom for exploration and choice; 5) the environment can minimize gender influence through the presence of neutral processes and materials, such as all participants wearing the same rain clothes or the non-gendered natural materials played with outside; 6) deliberate choices in language such as pronouns, titles, and nicknames can help children openly explore gender; and, 7) children may still contribute gendered actions during nature-based activities on their own because of exposure to other gendered interactions beyond these experiences outside.

The interviewees identified two ways in which environmental education can be better suited to disassemble gendered norms. These, though conflicting, are that 1) educators should create space for play initiated by their students as it is less likely to be influenced by adults and based on gendered norms and that 2) educators should disrupt any gendered norms as they happen. From this data, researchers conclude that nature-based environmental education might be conducive to diffusing gender norms and stereotypes, as long as environmental educators commit to it.

There were limitations to this study. The 20-person sample of interviewees was based on convenience (i.e. Twitter followers and people in which the researchers or their connections emailed), and the vast majority identified as white. These factors contribute to the study's lack of generalizability. In addition, the data was self-reported, and not every interviewee was asked the same question(s) since the interviews were semi-structured.

Researchers recommend that environmental educators become aware of their own gendered biases and experiences, the ways it can manifest in their work with children, and identify how and when gendered norms can arise during NBE activities. They also suggest that consistent, conscious language and actions of educators can create spaces for children to explore gender in less traditional ways and develop identity in a safe and inclusive environment. This can include using non-binary language, using they/them pronouns during instruction and play, offering alternatives to traditional, gendered assumptions, and providing neutral materials derived from nature. Further, the researchers recommend that environmental educators redirect gendered play that may be harmful when it arises.

The Bottom Line

<p>Nature-based education has the potential to disrupt traditional and harmful gender norms to create a more inclusive and safe future for children. This study interviewed 20 environmental educators about their perceptions and experiences with gender in working with children. Results showed that gender can manifest in many ways but nature-based settings provide the space where gender norms are less likely to manifest. Educators should understand how gender influences and contributes to the work they do, and how they can purposefully create a safe space for all learners. Consistent, conscious language and actions of educators can allow for children to explore gender in less traditional ways and develop a healthy gender identity.</p>

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