Research Summary

COVID-19 and the desire of children to return to nature: Emotions in the face of environmental and intergenerational injustices

Effects of pandemic policies on children’s emotions in Portugal

The Journal of Environmental Education
2021

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered many countries to impose lockdowns to keep their citizens safe and healthy. These policies negatively impacted society and the economy and illuminated environmental injustices. For example, people in urban areas, particularly disadvantaged groups, had fewer opportunities to be in green spaces due to the closing of community areas and lack of access to natural settings. Research has shown that simply being in nature can improve mental and physical health, both of which was negatively impacted for many during strict lockdowns. The pandemic was also challenging for educators and students because of virtual learning, specifically for environmental education. Not only were students subject to social isolation, but also they experienced a lack of being in nature. Further, the lack of access to sufficient technology inhibited a number of students to engage in productive learning. In other respects, the need for masks and other materials have caused an uptick in plastic pollution. However, the lockdowns benefitted the natural world in some respects. The researchers in this study interviewed students in Portugal to understand their perspectives of relationships with nature during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns in the country and the ways socio-economic circumstances may factor into those perceptions.

The 90 participating students represented 6 different schools in Portugal and were between the ages of 4 and 13 years. The six schools included public and private (i.e., free education or fee-based education), as well as rural and urban. All the schools had similar core environmental values and practices like composting, planting rain gardens, and recycling. Some followed official eco-schools programming set by the Ministry of Education while some used an alternative eco-approach. The researchers initially collected data through participant observation during online lessons. Then, the researchers moved to online focus groups with six to eight children in each group. The focus group moderator sent environmentally-focused images to students and asked them to choose one or more. These images included vegetable gardens, personal hygiene products, clothing, modified and natural environments, and sustainability behaviors among other environmental depictions. The children were asked to share the image or images they chose and explain why, with the moderator facilitating the discussion to elicit their relationship with nature, how they interacted with nature during the pandemic, and their suggestions for environmental problems. At the end of the focus group discussion, the children played a game to encourage students to reminisce about a positive experience they had outside. The data were transcribed and analyzed.

The results revealed the students’ feelings about nature and the pandemic, their access to nature before and during the pandemic, and intergenerational environmental injustice. First, students talked about nature before and during the pandemic with different emotions. For example, the students were concerned about pollution from the pandemic (i.e., masks and other plastic leaching into water systems and the ocean), which they felt would lead to a sick world, and they were scared to be outside in fear of catching COVID-19. They also shared frustration with lockdowns and lack of access to the physical world like they had before the pandemic hit. Despite these negative emotions toward the pandemic, the children had fond memories of nature which gave them the hope and desire to return to time outside after the pandemic, demonstrating the need for human-nature interactions.

Second, students discussed their access to nature before and during the pandemic. The researchers found that the educational approaches of each school influenced their experience with nature when they had unrestricted access. Moreover, the school setting (i.e., rural or urban) and the socio-economic circumstance of the family (i.e., public or private education) had a greater impact on access to nature during the pandemic. For example, most children from urban public schools were confined to their living spaces and had limited access to community-managed spaces like a park. In contrast, most children from urban private schools had unlimited access to natural spaces like a yard or a spacious vacation home. Meanwhile, students enrolled in rural public and rural private schools generally had unlimited access to larger natural spaces like a forest. Some students, primarily those from urban public schools, shared a loss of freedom during the pandemic, while most other students did not share the same sentiment because of their location or socio-economic status.

Finally, the focus groups revealed there was a difference between generations regarding environmental and social justice and the ways they each care for the environment. For example, the students were dissatisfied with the amount of litter from pandemic materials and did not comprehend why it was happening when most items could be recycled or properly disposed. Overall, the children felt a sense of intergenerational environmental injustice because of the ways adults do not sufficiently deal with sustainability issues, which were highlighted during the pandemic. The researchers concluded pandemic policies, social isolation and distancing, and lack of access to technology and nature during school lessons deepened the divide between socio-economic groups and highlighted environmental and intergenerational justice issues.

There were limitations to this study. The researchers chose schools for the study sample with environmental principles, which may have skewed the data. For example, children who go to schools focused on recycling will likely have more knowledge about the practice as opposed to students in schools that do not practice or discuss recycling. The focus group moderator may have provided too many guiding questions, resulting in students sharing or repeating information they felt the researcher wanted to hear rather than how they actually felt. Finally, there was no mention of when the study took place during the pandemic or discussion of specific media coverage that could have influenced student response. Therefore, the results are likely not generalizable beyond this population and situation.

The researchers recommended considering the socio-spatial inequalities in urban areas when closing public green spaces for mental, emotional, and physical health and well-being. Further, they recommended that children can and should have a voice when pursuing environmental solutions. As environmental educators face disturbances such as lockdowns and subsequent virtual learning, teachers can become aware of three key factors to create inclusive environmental experiences that encourage students to take advantage of nature’s healing qualities. These key factors include awareness of students’ perception of nature, lack of access to technology and nature, and intergenerational differences.

The Bottom Line

The COVID-19 pandemic caused country-wide lockdowns to keep citizens healthy, triggered adverse social and economic effects, and instilled negative emotions in students. However, the pandemic highlighted environmental and intergenerational injustices. The researchers hosted virtual focus groups with 90 young students in Portugal to understand their perspectives of relationships with nature during COVID-19 lockdowns and the ways socio-economic circumstances may factor into those perceptions. Children shared negative emotions toward the pandemic and demonstrated the desire to return to outside activities as normal. The researchers also found that a family’s socio-economic status impacted nature access and subsequent emotional and mental health. Finally, the data showed differences between the perceived environmental responsibility in children and adults. The researchers recommended considering the inequalities of nature access among student populations. The insights from this study can help environmental educators create inclusive environmental experiences that encourage students to take advantage of nature’s healing qualities.