Research Summary

The Effects of Children's Age and Sex on Acquiring Pro-Environmental Attitudes Through Environmental Education

Effects of Age and Gender on Fostering Pro-Environmental Attitudes in Children

The Journal of Environmental Education

Although shifting environmental attitudes—particularly among adults—is a slow process, it is critical in fostering pro-environmental behavior. To this end, clarifying environmental attitudes is often addressed in environmental education (EE). In this study, the authors aim to understand how differences in age and gender influence the acquisition of pro-environmental attitudes.

This study took place at German schools with fourth graders (9 to 10 years of age) and sixth graders (11 to 13 years of age). Within each age range, the authors formed two subsamples: students who attended a weeklong, intensive residential EE program, and those who did not. Student participation in these subsamples was based on participating classes; 11 classes participated in the weeklong EE program, while four classes did not. These subsamples allowed the authors to compare how this weeklong EE program influenced environmental attitudes in respect to age and gender.

All participants completed pre- and post-program surveys consisting of 47 questions with 5-point Likert scale responses. Administration of the surveys occurred three times: two weeks before the program (T0), directly after the program (T1), and four to six weeks later (T2). The control group responded to the survey without any program participation. The survey was modified from a 20-item questionnaire called the Two Major Environmental Values (2-MEV ) model. This well-tested, reliable, and valid model defines environmental attitudes under two distinct domains: preservation and utilization. Preservation is a biocentric dimension, represented by acts of conservation and protection of the environment. Utilization, on the other hand, is an anthropocentric dimension focusing on the self-interest use of the environment and its natural resources. While these dimensions are unique from each other, they do not occur on a linear spectrum. For example, someone who works to conserve the environment may also have strong utilization attitudes toward the environment. In other words, these dimensions are independent of one another; the questioner measures them as such. Lastly, the survey included questions focusing on knowledge and connectedness to nature.

The weeklong intensive EE program, called “Water in Life– Life in Water,” reflected both preservation and utilitarian attitudes. For example, students learned how to lessen their water use and protect water sources, thereby promoting pro-environmental preservation attitudes. Students also learned about their own water usage and how their actions might have a negative impact on water, promoting pro-environmental utilitarian attitudes. Additionally, students engaged in a diverse array of activities, which took into consideration gender-related preferences regarding learner types, learner styles, and content. To that end, the program was designed to equally engage both males and females.

Findings from this study suggest that younger students (ages 9 to 10) had a higher preservation attitude (M = 4.34) toward the environment and a lower utilitarian (M = 2.47) attitude than older students (ages 11 to 13; preservation: M = 4.03, utilitarian: M = 2.63). This combination of high preservation and low utilitarian dimensions is defined by the authors as a pro-environmental attitude. Younger students also retained these pro-environmental attitudes over the long term (T0 to T2), as opposed to older students, whose pro-environmental attitudes did not persist. There were no differences in the findings between males and females for either age group, although this is inconsistent with other research findings suggesting females score higher on preservation attitudes and lower on utilitarian attitudes when compared to males. The authors’ results may suggest an effective and gender-equitable design and pedagogy for the EE program, although further research is required.

Additional limitations of the study include the younger students’ developmental preference toward socially acceptable behaviors. Whereas 9- and 10-year-olds in this study are still at a “concrete operational” development stage, seeking acceptance from role models such as parents and teachers, the older students, entering adolescence, are gaining autonomy. These developmental differences between the age groups may account for some of the differences in pro-environmental attitudes. Nonetheless, these findings suggest that weeklong, intensive EE programs are more effective at enhancing and maintaining pro-environmental attitudes with younger children.

The Bottom Line

Findings from this study suggest environmental education programs are more effective at fostering and maintaining pro-environmental attitudes in younger children. As younger children are more likely to be in a developmental stage focused on social acceptance, this is an important time to establish and foster pro-environmental social norms. However, this is not to say that environmental education programs should not also cater to older students. Students in their adolescence are learning how to gain their independence and autonomy. This developmental learning can coincide with environmental education and be fostered through environmental activism, which fosters students’ empowerment and leadership skills.