Research Summary

The impact of direct and indirect experiences on the development of environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behavior

Direct nature experiences are important for changing environmental attitudes and behavior

Many environmental education programs strive to positively influence children's environmental behavior, however, more research is needed about program elements and experiences that lead to changes in environmental behavior. In this study, Duerden and colleagues investigated the relationship between indirect and direct nature experiences and children's environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.

Researchers used surveys, focus groups, and observations to evaluate the experiences of 108 middle and high school students that participated in an international immersion environmental education program, which included a preparatory program (indirect nature experience), a 7-14 day international field workshop (direct nature experience), and a post-trip service project. Duerden and colleagues surveyed participants at multiple stages in the program, as well as a comparison group of 49 middle and high school students who did not participate in the program.

In analyzing the data, researchers found that program participants had a significant increase in environmental knowledge as compared to the comparison group. In examining the impact of different program components, Duerden and colleagues found that during the indirect nature experience (i.e., the preparatory program) children's environmental knowledge increased more than their environmental attitudes and environmental attitudes had a stronger impact on children's environmental behavior, while during the direct nature experience (i.e., the international workshop) both children's environmental knowledge and attitudes developed rather equally and both environmental knowledge and attitudes were related to environmental behavior. In addition, researchers discovered that while children's indirect experiences led to enhanced environmental knowledge, it was their direct experiences that led to attitude and behavior development. Interestingly, Duerden and colleagues found that the nature of children's direct experience was vital to the impact it had on children. For example, researchers discovered that children perceived experiences to be more direct if they were afforded freedom and autonomy during the experience.

The researchers' study design and mix of methods provides an important contribution to the literature. In concluding their article, Duerden and colleagues highlight program implications from their research, as well as future research needs.