Research Summary

Fostering relationships between elementary students and the more-than-human world using movement and stillness

Regular field trips in elementary schools build connection with the more-than-human world

The Journal of Environmental Education

As the world faces increased impacts from climate change, it is crucial to help young children connect with and value protecting the more-than-human (MtH) world. The term MtH is meant to be used as an inclusive view of the natural world, which embraces animals, plants, water, fungi, land, and more. Researchers have proposed that many nature-related problems the world faces now due in part to a larger disconnect between humans and the MtH world as compared to the past. Engaging with the MtH world, especially at a young age, can open the opportunity for a greater value of nature and understanding of environmental issues. Because all children have the opportunity to access public schools, it proves for a good opportunity to incorporate programs that encourage students to have stronger relationships with the MtH world. The researchers in this study aimed to observe growing relationships between students and the MtH world to understand how that relationship grew throughout the process.

This study is based on a partnership between an elementary school, a nonprofit that runs a nearby arboretum, and an EE program at a state university in the United States. The goal of the program was to foster connections with the MtH world for students and provide teaching opportunities for university students who helped lead the programs. In the program, students attended one field trip each season of each school year, and each trip was paired with a pre-trip school lesson. The researchers in this study focused on the first cohort of the program, consisting of 90 children. The study followed them from kindergarten through fourth grade. In total, the students had 18 field trips over the five school years. The field trips were often similar, but the students learned about a new ecosystem each grade year. During the field trips, each class was split into three groups and each group was named after a specific species of the ecosystem they were studying to create empathy towards the MtH world. The participants went on guided hikes, learned about plants and animals of the ecosystem, and recorded their observations in field journals. Over the years, the researchers observed the field trips themselves and took notes, collected the student observations, collected the observations of the students that the university students made, and took notes on casual conversations with teachers, chaperones, and student teachers. No audio or video recordings were taken. These observations, quotes, and conversations were analyzed using a thematic grouping method.

The analysis showed that changes in the students' perspectives toward the MtH world community started to occur during the second grade. One of the teachers observed over the study period that students had learned ecological knowledge and grown their overall connectedness to nature. Additionally, they observed that students did not see themselves as separate from the MtH world.

Over time, the children noticed and recognized all kinds of flora or fauna species at the arboretum, and even at school outside of the field trips without being prompted. For example, students could tell the difference between different types of trees, which became increasingly more frequent as the study progressed. In addition, all the adults present on the field trips noted the increase in the student’s overall way of being when they were at the arboretum compared to other students their age. One teacher stated that her students were much more aware of their surroundings and overall calmer when on the field trips compared to when they were in their classroom. They formed multiple habits such as: the fox walk, meaning they walk more quietly and softly, holding up deer ears which involves cupping their hands around their ears to be able to hear certain sounds better, and sitting peacefully on the trail for 10-15 minutes to listen and observe their surroundings (known as sit spots). Moreover, the students overall concern toward the MtH world consistently grew throughout the study period based on the observational data. The researchers believe part of getting to these results was due to the repeated and consistent field trips students took to the same place.

Over their years of observing, the researchers concluded two specific experiences occurred on these trips, “Movement” and “Stillness”, and that both are needed to nurture MtH. Movement is defined as the human interactions in which people discuss, engage, and connect through their observations of the MtH world. Students did this on the trips, such as when they got excited about an animal on the trail, they would bring it the attention of others. Everyone teaches each other in this process. Stillness includes listening and learning from the surrounding MtH world community. Sit spots were essential for building stillness.

There were limitations to this study. This study focused on one public school in the United States, so the results are not generalizable because the demographics of this school are not representative of all public schools. Further, this study is completely based on qualitative data. This is a recognized and qualified approach, but there is the possibility of biases arising.

Overall, this study concluded that the two specific experiences called “Movement” and “Stillness” were of utmost importance to the children’s experiences at the arboretum and relationship with the MtH world. In order to shift between these two, as Movement is more familiar to students than Stillness, the researchers recommend practitioners use common EE practices noted previously like deer ears, fox walks, or sit spots. Sharing observations, play, and mindfulness are also important.

The Bottom Line

The relationships humans foster with nature is crucial to building care for the natural world. Connecting people with the more-than-human world (MtH) is currently lacking and could be improved to better face environmental challenges, especially by exposing children to nature at a young age. The researchers in this study aimed to observe growing relationships between students and the MtH world to understand how that relationship grew. Participants went on regular field trips to their local arboretum three times each academic year between kindergarten and the fourth grade. The researchers collected observational data throughout the study period and found that two specific experiences called “Movement” and “Stillness” were important to the children’s experiences at the arboretum. The researchers suggested that building relationships between children and the MtH world requires both Movement and Stillness and that there should be a variety of activities for children that encapsulate the two.