Study from Stanford University Researchers Details Evidence That Early Childhood Environmental Education Delivers Many Benefits for Young Learners
Research shows what educators, policymakers, and parents have recognized for years: early childhood environmental education can positively impact young children’s development.
The Stanford team’s analysis found overwhelming evidence supporting that ECEE can provide wide-ranging benefits for children, such as increased learning in a range of areas such as mathematics, science, language, and literacy, enhanced social and emotional skills, and improved physical development. ECEE programs can also improve environmental literacy outcomes such as environmental cognition, attitudes, and behavior, while building knowledge and skills that lay the foundation for more environmentally responsible and engaged adults.
Researchers analyzed 66 studies published between 1995 and 2016 that examine commonly identified and measured Early Childhood Environmental Education (ECEE) program outcomes.
What Is Early Childhood Environmental Education (ECEE)?
This study uses a broad definition of ECEE aligned with the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) definition: “Environmental education in early childhood is a holistic concept that encompasses knowledge of the natural world, as well as emotions, dispositions, and skills” (NAAEE, 2016, page 2). As such, the research team acknowledges and values multiple variants of and approaches to ECEE including, but not limited to, nature-based early childhood education and early childhood education for sustainability. These, and related approaches, share a common aim of developing a local, regional, and global community of environmentally active people through engaging young children in meaningful, relevant environmental learning experiences (Davis & Elliott, 2014; Wilson, 1996).
To conduct the review, researchers analyzed 66 studies published between 1995 and 2016 that examine commonly identified and measured ECEE program outcomes. The team identified studies for analysis through conducting a systematic search-and-screen process seeking those that met criteria for relevance and quality. For additional information on the research methodology used for all the identified outcome areas for the eeWORKS project, please see From Anecdotes to Evidence: Diving into the Research Review Process.
This literature-review study by Stanford University researchers, documents that ECEE has powerful benefits for children's cognitive, social and emotional, and physical development. Environmental literacy, such as environmental cognition, attitudes, and behaviors, were the most frequently documented outcomes among the studies in the analysis. The results suggest opportunities, in the short and longer term, for laying the groundwork for these young children to take action to improve and protect the environment in the future. These programs, diverse in their design and implementation, emphasize the importance of nature-rich settings, play and movement, and effective guidance by mentors such as teachers, school staff, and even researchers in bringing about the abundance of positive benefits documented in this analysis.
Ardoin, N., and Bowers, A. (2020). Early childhood environmental education: A systematic review of the research literature. Educational Research Review, Volume 31, Article 100353. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2020.100353
Davis, J., & Elliott, S. (2014). Research in early childhood education for sustainability: International perspectives and provocations. New York, NY: Routledge.
North American Association for Environmental Education. (2016). Early childhood environmental education programs: Guidelines for excellence. Washington, DC: Author.
Wilson, R. A. (1996). Environmental education programs for preschool children. The Journal of Environmental Education, 27(4), 28–33. https://doi.org/10.1080/ 00958964.1996.9941473.