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Environmental identity formation in nonformal environmental education programs


Nonformal environmental education programs support development of environmental identity

This study addressed two primary goals: (1) to identify and examine memories of former participants in three nature-based programs five to forty years after childhood involvement; and (2) to determine whether these memories illustrate the processes of environmental identity formation in childhood as predicted by social practice theory.

All three nature-based programs selected as study sites for this research project have long-standing histories of providing hands-on learning experiences connecting people with nature. Eighteen former participants were interviewed about experiences they remembered from their childhood involvement in these nature-based programs. During the thirty- to sixty-minute interviews, they were also asked about how those experiences influenced their environmental identities and academic or career choices.

According to social practice theory, people aren’t likely to take action to protect the environment in any sustained way unless they incorporate caring for the environment into their identity. Social practice theory also suggests that the process of developing an environmental identity occurs across one’s lifespan and is developed through a personal history of direct engagement with the natural world. Three changes usually occur within individuals as their environmental identity deepens or thickens over time. First, they experience an increasing salience of the natural world, which includes noticing and learning more about it and becoming aware of environmental problems. Secondly, they begin identifying themselves with the world of environmental action, which includes acquiring a sense of agency and taking some responsibility for their actions. Thirdly, they gain knowledge through their actions. They not only learn practical activities associated with environmental action but also become acquainted with a network of other environmental actors.

From an analysis of the shared memories, sixteen major themes emerged, with a number of these themes reflecting key elements of environmental identity formation as outlined in social practice theory. Evidence of the three changes consistent with social practice theory was also identified. All eighteen study participants recalled memorable episodes of hands-on learning that increased their awareness of the natural world; and sixteen indicated that their nature program experiences permanently changed the way they see the natural world. None of the participants, however, reported becoming more aware of environmental problems.

Participants from all three study sites also recalled inspiring instructors whose behaviors they imitated. Additionally, they felt accepted into a group they admired and were excited to be entrusted with responsible tasks. Some participants reported that overcoming nature-related fears was an important part of growing into their environmental identity.

Over 50% of the participants reported that their nature program experiences influenced their career choice; and 89% reported that those experiences helped shape their environmental identity.

According to the authors, the results of this study have implications for environmental education. If the aim of environmental education is to promote sustained action for the environment, then such programs need “to provide a pathway through a series of social settings where young people will want to belong, where their identity as an environmental actor will progressively ‘thicken.’” They also suggest that it’s not necessary to choose between structured learning and time in nature, and that for developing an environmental identity it’s helpful to enable young people to assume increasing levels of responsibility.

The authors conclude that social practice theory is useful in interpreting social environmental identity, but that ecological identity formation through direct contact with nature is also an important, and complementary conceptualization.


Williams, C.C., Chawla, L., (2016). Environmental identity formation in nonformal environmental education programs. Environmental Education Research, 22(7), 978-1001.


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