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The development of conservation behaviors in childhood and youth


Time in nature, environmental socialization, and experiential learning promote conservation ethic

The purpose of this chapter in an edited handbook was to provide an in-depth, systematic, and comprehensive review of research on the development of conservation behaviors with a focus on the foundational years of youth.

Several theories related to human development are used as the framework for contextualizing and making coherent meaning out of a robust and varied body of research such that the results can be better applied to practical action. Tenets from the field of ecological psychology give roots to the importance of spending time in childhood playing freely in nature, at times with close people who share in exploration and appreciation of the environment. Social learning theory explains the need for people to have a sense of self-efficacy or competence in order to make an effort to take care of the natural world and offers processes that can build such competence during childhood. The related model of achievement motivation can be used to understand how environmental identity is developed, in part through feelings of connection to the natural world. These three theories were selected because they offer disparate yet complementary insights into why and how people become motivated to take action on behalf of the environment.

From this foundation, research is presented from the focus areas of informal play and exploration of nature during youth; school and field-based environmental education programs; and youth wilderness programs. Citing and synthesizing over one-hundred studies, several essential themes emerge from this review. First, essentially every type of environmental behavior, from recycling to environmental careers, has been linked by research to a childhood spent playing in nature. Thus, a sustainable world in which people take care of the natural environment is predicated on children having regular access to direct experiences in nature. Second, social support for the development of a caring relationship with the natural environment is critically important. From early childhood through adolescence, young people benefit from guides who share in nature experiences with them, model care for the natural world, and help them develop their environmental knowledge. Third, reoccurring direct experiences and opportunities to learn through action, such as offered through place-based education, environmental service learning, nature centers, and wilderness programs, are necessary for youth to practice the skills of active environmental citizenship.

This review offers practical recommendations for the design of school-based programs, environmental or wilderness programs, communities, and other settings to create the conditions for people to engage with, come to care for, and ultimately take care of the natural world. In-depth recommendations for future research in this field are offered in closing.


Chawla, L., Derr, V., (2012). The development of conservation behaviors in childhood and youth. The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology, 527-555.

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