Recognizing the Child as Knowledgeable Other: Intergenerational Learning Research to Consider Child-to-Adult Influence on Parent and Family Eco-Knowledge

Article excerpt

This article presents a review of current research used to shape and guide an investigation into the nature of the influence of children as agents of intergenerational learning in environmental studies. Five children and their mothers were interviewed regarding their views about children's influences on parent and family eco-knowledge and behavior. Four of the five children and four of the five parents interviewed referred to positive child-to-adult influence. Use of effective communication strategies and examples of new knowledge and action were cited as evidence of influence. Approaches to support intergenerational learning are discussed and areas for future research are identified.

Keywords: intergenerational learning research, child-to-adult influence, family eco-knowledge


Intergenerational learning refers to learning that exists or occurs between two or more generations. It involves the "sharing of information, thoughts, feelings and experiences between two generations that can enrich both" (European Map of Intergenerational Learning, n.d.). As an important feature of lifelong learning, intergenerational learning is a way that people of all ages can learn together and from one another to gain new information, skills, and values. The many potential benefits of intergenerational learning include enhancing the transfer of knowledge, building new ways of learning between generations, and helping nurture family relationships and develop social cohesion. Much intergenerational learning takes place informally, but it can be found in significant forms in formal schooling or activities specifically planned for intergenerational learning (Oracle Education Foundation, n.d.).

There is a burgeoning interest in the nature of intergenerational learning and the ways this form of learning might enhance and further the goals of environmental education and education for sustainability. The majority of intergenerational learning studies have attempted to build understanding of knowledge transfer from adult to child, with the assumption that the adult is the primary knowledge holder or knowledge teacher. A major theme in adult-to-child intergenerational influence research has been the influence connection between children and their grandparents. Elders are represented as models of stability, decision makers, advisors, and surrogate parents (Newman, 1980, p. 1). Grandparent figures have influence on children's development of self-esteem and feelings of competency, helping them to establish a sense of place in the world and to generate links between the past and the future (Newman, 1980, p. 3). Several themes emerge in literature about the benefits of grandparent-to-child influence. These include the emotional benefits that children gain from developing relationships with seniors (Strom & Strom, 1995) and the learning advantages that occur when seniors and children work together on projects or activities of common interest (Kaplan, 1994; Liu & Kaplan, 2006; Mayer-Smith, Bartosh, & Peterat, 2007; Newman, 1980; Whitehouse, Bendezu, FallCreek, & Whitehouse, 2000). Research also supports the ways that grandparent-to-child intergenerational relationships contribute to family harmony (Strom & Strom, 2000). There is also a strong emphasis in the intergenerational literature on mother-to-child influence relationships, particularly how mothers influence children's literacy level, attachment security, and written competencies (Bus & van IJzendoorn, 1988). Very few studies discuss the effects of fathers on their children, however, and even fewer consider the relationship between fathers and their daughters (Gadsden & Hall, 1996, p. 3).


Although the research on adult-to-child influence makes an important contribution to the study of intergenerational learning, we now recognize that high status should be given to the significant ideas and knowledge held by children in the design of instruction (Shapiro, 1994), that communication is not unidirectional soley from adult to child (Uzzell, 1999), and that adults are not the sole focus of knowledge and influence in families (Cowan & Avants, 1988). …