Strategies for encouraging environmental appreciation in children

What do most environmentally-engaged citizens have in common? Fond memories of immersion in nature as a young child, such as playing in streams, building tree forts, catching frogs, and making nature into an imaginary play world. The unstructured time children spend in nature can actually be the most memorable.

Children who spend time out in the natural world and develop a connection with the plants and creatures that inhabit it are more likely to grow up to be active stewards of the planet. Positive outcomes from engaging in nature at a young age also include better physical health, stronger immune systems, and lower stress levels.

Encouraging children’s appreciation for nature and their concern for the environment must be approached in age appropriate ways. Many educators and parents with good intentions think it best to fully inform their children, the younger the better, about serious environmental issues such as disappearing species, deforestation, and climate change.

If presented before the child possesses the cognitive maturity and background knowledge necessary to engage with these issues, or before s/he has had a chance to connect with the natural world, such information can backfire. This can lead to overwhelmed, “ecophobic” young people who fear ecological problems and the natural world and grow up into disengaged citizens.

There are many approaches to develop children’s appreciation and participation in nature. Trips to zoos, aquariums, and museums can create a connection to animals, as can everyday activities and free time for children to explore their surroundings.

As David Sobel says in Beyond Ecophobia:

If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it. Perhaps this is what Thoreau had in mind when he said, the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.

Place-based Education

Place-based education, also known as community-based experiential education, emphasizes the importance of allowing children to bond with the natural world at an early age, before they are asked to save it.  Educator David Sobel has much to teach us on this subject.  In his books Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities and Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, Sobel proposes restructuring environmental education to include place-based experiences, suggesting developmentally appropriate and effective ways to support children’s innate tendency to bond with the natural world.

Young children, Sobel says, can begin the process of caring for living things and the natural world right outside their homes, whether they have trees behind their house or a city block. Children play as birds, follow streams, and explore how worms wriggle.  Positive experiences should occur frequently, as children learn best through ongoing exposure.  Facilitating experiences that are simple and nearby – such as in a city park – provide great benefits without consuming a great deal of time and energy.  This should create a strong bond with nature that fills the child with a “sense of wonder” and a lasting passion for the natural environment.

Ages 3-7

For children ages three through seven, empathy between the child and the natural world should be a main objective. As children move out into the natural world, we can encourage feelings for the creatures they may encounter, such as baby animals. This emotional connection leads kids to understand that all biota are interconnected.  Stories, songs, close encounters with animals, and seasonal celebrations are excellent activities.

Ages 7-11

 Exploration of the natural world is an important phase in educational development at this stage. The heart of childhood is the critical period for bonding with their neighborhood ecosystem. Due to children’s expanding knowledge of their environment, this is the time to immerse children in the possibilities of their natural surroundings. Constructing forts, creating small imaginary worlds, hunting and gathering, searching for treasures, making maps, taking care of animals, gardening and shaping the earth are perfect activities during this stage.

This brief on childhood engagement strategies was compiled by The Ocean Project team for use by our partners and other conservation organizations. Please feel free to use it and share it with others!