Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Young Children Learning for the Environment: Researching a Forest Adventure

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Young Children Learning for the Environment: Researching a Forest Adventure

Article excerpt


Education plays a key role in enabling individuals and social groups to act more sustainably (UNESCO, 1977), and to adopt new cultural beliefs which drive those actions for sustainability (UNESCO, 2004; UNEP, 2007). Such education needs to develop multiple factors in combination (Hungerford & Volk, 1990) including: positive attitudes towards the environment, knowledge of ecology and environmental issues, and knowledge of and skills in using action strategies. Additionally, external aspects such as cultural, social or economic pressures may encourage or inhibit an individual's action for sustainability (Hines, Hungerford, & Tomera, 1986/7).

The effect of external factors can be paralleled to the limitations experienced by educational movements for sustainability as proposed in Sterling's (2001) nested systems model. Individuals and groups, including education for sustainability movements, are encompassed within larger education, social, economic and cultural systems. The norms, expectations, values and beliefs of these systems have a greater influence on individuals and groups than vice versa (Sterling, 2001). Sterling's emphasis, though, is that the smaller, internalised systems do have some influence on the larger systems and this influence can be progressively increased through a positive feedback loop relationship where "change for sustainability in wider society supports sustainable education which in turn supports change in wider society" (Sterling, 2001, p. 32). Cultural change for sustainability is, therefore, more likely to occur when education programs involve the wider community--and across generations--as well as developing individual's capacities to act more sustainably.

Field experiences for young children are ideal vehicles for implementing aspects of education critical to the development of active citizenship and cultural change towards sustainability. Although there is little research documenting the efficacy and influence of field experience in early childhood education for sustainability, research in related areas suggests such a context is both appropriate and needed. First, there is evidence, for example, that direct interactions with nature during childhood of both environmental activist and non-activist adults has a significant influence on the development of positive attitudes towards the environment (Chawla, 1999; Wells & Lekies, 2006). Yet, children's direct nature experiences are diminishing (Louv 2005; Malone, 2007). Second, despite some people's negative beliefs about young children's capabilities, children are interested in and able to understand quite complex environmental concepts. For example, Palmer (1999) reported accurate understanding by four- and six-year-olds of the global impacts of changing polar environments caused by increased air temperatures. Furthermore, such concepts are more likely to be learnt and retained when embedded within active learning experiences (Knapp & Poff, 2001) including in engaged discussions with adults (Ballantyne, Fien, & Packer, 2001; Seifert, 1993). Field experiences commonly engage children in such learning. Third, young children are capable of taking environmental action and can influence the wider community to act more sustainably. Davis, Gibson, Rowntree, Pratt, and Eglington (2005), for example, documented the actions of four-year-olds who responded to the dumping of a supermarket trolley in their playground. They had a letter published in the local community newspaper, and placed signs in the supermarket to dissuade shoppers from taking trolleys beyond the shop boundaries. Additionally, they modelled water-saving practices to their parents, encouraging home-based water conservation.

The Early Childhood Field Experience Program

Responding to Rickinson's (2001) call for research into learners' experiences of learning, a study was undertaken investigating an early childhood program developed by the Bunyaville Environmental Education Centre (BEEC) in Brisbane, Australia, focused on the endangered marsupial, the Greater Bilby. …

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