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Childhood experiences associated with care for the natural world: A theoretical framework for empirical results


Direct childhood experiences and mentoring are key elements in adults’ actions to benefit the environment

The focus of this research from Dr. Louise Chawla is on those factors that contribute to individuals choosing to take action to benefit the environment when they are adults. Her purpose is to offer a theoretical framework for study of the relationship between childhood experiences in nature and adults’ concerns and actions related to the environment.  She is particularly interested in why adults choose to take these actions, posing this question: “Why do people who take action for the environment or choose environmental vocations repeatedly look back to childhood places and people when they account for their behavior?”

This is a continuation of earlier research reported by Dr. Chawla in the 1990s (Journal of Environmental Education, 1998, 1999). The author reviewed relevant studies, re-analyzed transcripts from her earlier research, and offered a rationale for offering insights from ecological psychology and attachment theory as a basis for a theoretical framework.

Her analysis yielded these findings. Positive, direct experience in the out-of-doors and being taken outdoors by someone close to the child – a parent, grand parent, or other trusted guardian – are the two most significant contributing factors. While lifelong activism is the primary focus of Dr. Chawla’s inquiry, as reported in this article, her well-documented study includes citations and explanations of many additional benefits to children from early experiences in the out-of-doors. Creativity, physical competence, social skills, environmental knowledge, confidence, and problem-solving ability are among those benefits to children’s development. Given the important role of adults in taking children into the out-of-doors, Dr. Chawla is specific about the attributes of the experiences those adult mentors provide. She states, the “adults gave attention to their surroundings in four ways – care for the land as a limited resource essential for family identity and well-being; a disapproval of destructive practices; simple pleasure at being out in nature; and a fascination with the details of other living things and elements of the earth and sky.” Modeling those attributes while in the presence of the child does even more. As Dr. Chawla states, “The very fact that a parent or grandparent chose to take the child with them to a place where they themselves found fascination and pleasure, to share what engaged them there, suggests not only care for the natural world, but, equally, care for the child.”

She closes with a recommendation for development of alternative theoretical frameworks, and argues that these efforts are fruitful areas for further research.


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.


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