Environmental education works to create environmentally literate individuals who are able to make educated decisions about environmental issues. Research has shown children who learn about environmental issues at a younger age are more likely to participate in sustainable acts in their future. To ensure current EE programs are creating environmentally literate individuals, it is important to understand children's current level of environmental literacy prior to programming. EE programs can then make necessary adjustments based on these findings to create new and engaging programming. The purpose of this study was to explore why children believe it is important to protect the environment and to determine how they learned this information.
This study was conducted in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The researchers selected 33 participants: 18 girls and 15 boys between the ages of 6-11, and majority of the participants were 9-10 years old. Participants were selected based on their parents' consent. The researchers separated the participants into six focus groups, three of which took place during a summer camp, while the other three took place during school lessons in a public primary school. Each focus group lasted about 20 minutes and consisted of prepared questions to frame the discussion around why the participants think protecting the environment is important. The researchers analyzed the interviews to identify common themes.
Overall, the results showed two overarching themes: participants believe it is important to protect the environment (1) for the benefit of humans and (2) for the benefit of nature.
Participants explained it is important to protect the environment for humans because it is essential for their health. For example, humans need clean air and clean water to stay healthy. The participants explained that polluted air or water could lead to people getting sick. Additionally, humans rely on the environment to increase their quality of life through recreational purposes and aesthetics. If the environment was covered in litter it could result in foul smells or water and snow turning brown, which could lead to a less enjoyable experience.
Participants also emphasized the importance of protecting the environment for the benefit of nature. They explained that a 'dirty' environment could result in the extinction of plants and animals. Additionally, participants emphasized the importance of protecting trees, because they provide oxygen for both humans and animals.
The participants were able to distinguish environmental issues and environmentally harmful behaviors, and why they were considered “bad” behaviors. For example, participants mentioned how poaching and cutting animals and plants were considered “bad” behaviors and resulted in a negative impact on the environment.
Lastly, participants identified various ways they learned why it is important to protect the environment. These ranged from learning through their school and family members to television or computer games. Additionally, some participants said they learned this information just by watching the behaviors of others. This showed participants learned through various outlets.
This study has limitations. The researchers believe younger participants may not have answered honestly because the interviews were conducted in focus groups with participants of varying ages. Additionally, although the researchers emphasized to participants there were no right or wrong answers prior to interviews, it is possible participants answered the questions in a way they believed would please the interviewers. Lastly, this study's results were specific to these participants. A larger study undertaken in another location may have different results.
The researchers emphasized the importance of understanding children's knowledge of the environment to create effective programming. This study showed young children understand how a clean and protected environment can benefit both humans and nature. Because of this, the researchers recommend EE practitioners try to gauge young children's current knowledge and understanding about the environment prior to programming. This could be done through a short verbal survey, or a quick introduction game. This will allow practitioners to introduce topics and concepts that can increase the participants environmental literacy, rather than repeating information they might already know. Additionally, practitioners could focus on environmental stewardship (e.g., picking up litter) and how environmental stewardship may help mitigate certain 'bad' behaviors (e.g., littering).
The Bottom Line
The purpose of this study was to explore children's reasoning why it is important to protect the environment. This study took place in Vilnius, Lithuania, where 33 elementary students participated in focus groups. The results indicated that the participants believed it was important to protect the environment for the benefit of both humans and nature. The researchers recommend understanding children's knowledge of a topic to ensure the program includes new and relevant information.