Including environmental considerations in child development research and practice

The future of our planet depends on the feelings, attitudes and behaviours that our children have towards the natural environment. As experts in child development and learning, psychologists can bring the environment into their work through research, education, therapeutically, and by advocating for the importance of children reconnecting with nature. Working with schools to design developmentally appropriate programs, incorporating environmental concerns into programs on resilience or social skills, and dealing constructively with fears about environmental catastrophe are all possible intervention points. Giving children some sense of control via environmentally preventative and restorative practices might well be the best antidote to doom and gloom scenarios.

Studies into impacts of contact with nature on children's development

Accumulating evidence demonstrates many benefits of contact with nature on children's psychological and physical wellbeing, including reduced stress, greater physical health, more creativity and improved concentration and self-discipline (Taylor, Kuo & Sullivan, 2002; Wells, 2000). Exposure to natural environments appears to improve children's cognitive development by improving awareness, reasoning and observational skills (Pyle, 2002).

More children live in urbanised environments now than ever before. Children risk growing up disconnected from the natural world, with implications for their future relationships with the environment. Active care for the environment in adulthood is associated with positive experiences of nature in childhood or adolescence, along with childhood role models who attended to and appreciated the natural world (Chawla, 2007). Parental attitudes and environmentally sustainable behaviour (ESB), together with direct experiences with nature during formative years, can influence the etiology of children's environmental attitudes and behaviours (Evans et al., 2007; Wells & Lekies, 2006), although there is much to learn about the role of early childhood experiences in the development of environmental attitudes.

Connecting children with nature involves experiential processes supporting their ecological literacy and advocacy skills (O'Sullivan & Taylor, 2004). A developmental frame would be attuned to the potentials and pitfalls in seeking to develop children's ecological identity. Simultaneous work on community level responses is essential; if adults continue to engage in behaviours that threaten the environment, children's sense of security is compromised.

Environmental education in schools

Schools are taking up sustainability initiatives such as waste policies, water and energy conservation, revegetation programs, and green design. As well as reducing their environmental footprint, schools that involve children in these activities model ESB to the children and wider community.

Schools also increasingly include environmental education in the curriculum. Psychological research can help optimise the effectiveness of schools' efforts by identifying factors influencing ESB in young people. These include lack of knowledge, believing actions won't make much difference, frustration, action paralysis, and pessimism (Thielking & Moore, 2001; Eckersley et al., 2007).

Schools and institutions should therefore be encouraged to focus on promoting a sense of empowerment in young people around environmental problems. Experiences that enable values clarification and assessment of competing claims (scientific, economic and social) associated with pro- and anti-environmental action should be highly valued. Action-based environmental education can demonstrate alternatives to harmful practices and positive consequences of pro-environmental action. Schools can provide students with experiences of ‘active citizenship', like writing letters, signing petitions and making complaints. This proenvironmental concern can be passed on from children to parents (Ballantyne, Connell & Fien, 2006), although there is conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of children as environmental change agents (Ballantyne et al., 2006).

Children who are aware of climate change threats might feel anxious, confused, or concerned about their own safety. Among the latest APS environmental resources is the Tip Sheet ‘Talking with children about the environment', which suggests ways of helping children develop ERB and understand environmental challenges, while also dealing with their feelings about climate change. The Tip Sheet can be accessed from the APS website on www.psychology.org.au/community/topics/climate/.

Any comments or ideas for this column can be forward to Dr Susie Burke, Senior Researcher, National Office Public Interest team on s.burke@psychology.org.au.

References

Ballantyne, R., Connell, S,. & Fien, J. (2006) Students as catalysts of environmental change: a framework for researching intergenerational influence through environmental education. Environmental Education Research,12:3, 413-427.

Chawla, L. (2007). Childhood Experiences Associated with Care for the Natural World: A Theoretical Framework for Empirical Results. Children, Youth and Environments, 17(4), 144-170.

Eckersley, R., Cahill, H., Wierenga, A., & Wyn, J. (2007). Generations in dialogue about the future: The hopes and fears of young Australians. Report published by the Australian Youth Research Centre and Australia 21. ACT.

Evans, G.W., Brauchle,G., Haq, A., Stecker, R., Wong, K., & Shapiro, E. (2007). Young Children's Environmental Attitudes and Behavior. Environment and Behavior, 39, 635-659.

O'Sullivan, E., & Taylor, M.M. (Eds.) (2004). Learning toward an ecological consciousness: selected transformative practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pyle, R. (2002). Eden in a vacant lot: special places, species and kids in community of life. In P.H. Kahn, & S.R. Kellert, (Eds.), Children and nature: psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigations. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Taylor, A.F., Kuo, F.E., & Sullivan, W.C. (2002). Views of nature and selfdiscipline:evidence from inner city children. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22, 49-63.

Thielking, M., & Moore, S. (2001). Young people and the environment: Predicting ecological behaviour. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 17, 63-69.

Wells, N.M. (2000). At home with nature: Effects of "greenness" on children's cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior, 32(6), 775-795.

Wells, N.M., & Lekies, K.S. (2006). Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmental attitudes. Children, Youth, and Environments, 16(1), 1-25.