Research Summary

'I saw a magical garden with flowers that people could not damage!': Children's visions of nature and of learning about nature in and out of school

Children’s deep emotional connection with nature generates a strongly protective disposition

Environmental Education Research
2017

This research explored children’s perspectives on what, where and how they learn about nature and what environmental problems they recognize in their urban communities. Children from four urban and semi-urban Portuguese schools participated in this study. The participating schools were intentionally selected as being representative of different environmental pedagogies: Waldorf, forest school and eco-school.

In each school, the researchers conducted a focus group with volunteer children who were asked to share their views of nature. A total of 31 children, age 5-10, participated. A guided imagery activity was used at the beginning of the focus group session to stimulate children’s imagination. For this activity, children were asked to imagine and explore a place in nature that they knew or would like to know. They were then invited to share their views on nature and their awareness of environmental problems and possible solutions. They were also asked to share information about their nature-related learning experiences, in and out-of-school. At the end of the discussion, the children made drawings of their views of the main topics discussed in the group. The purpose of this drawing activity was to involve children in the identification of main categories that emerged during the discussion.

When describing their views of nature, children referred to animals, plants and places that ranged from the exotic to the familiar, with animals appearing to be an essential element of nature. The children also referred to mythical figures which tended to have protective or caring roles (as in little fairies watering the plants). For many children, nature was described as the outdoor place where you can play with such equipment as slides and swings. Some children suggested that being outdoors included being careful not to hurt yourself or the plants and animals.

The children’s drawings reflected the diversity of topics addressed in the group discussions, with the playground and the garden emerging as the most frequent places of interest. Both group discussions and the children’s drawings reflected a deep emotional connection with nature along with a strongly protective disposition towards nature. This protective disposition seemed to be related to the children’s observation of environmental problems they witnessed in their walks in the community or heard about in the news.

Children cited both their families and their schools as sources for learning about nature. Learning with families seemed to involve mainly action and caring about nature. Schools, on the other hand, tended to focus on cognitive dimensions of learning, and clearly focused on education about the environment rather than education in the environment. Children made no references to learning experiences that involved them in the civic or political dimensions of environmental learning.

This research reflects children’s strong connections with nature and their awareness of environmental issues. It also documents their ability to have a say in these matters. While these findings suggest that children should be involved in environmental debates and action, political ecolitercy seems to be absent from their school learning experiences.