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Young children’s ideas about environment: Perspectives from three early childhood educational settings


Study finds environmental sustainability education effective with young children

The purpose of this study was to better understand young children’s perceptions of nature before and after an environmental learning activity focusing on trees. Participants for this study consisted of 44 children (age 3-9) attending three different early childhood education centers in the U.S. – a public school pre-kindergarten, a church-based cooperative preschool, and a private daycare center – all located in a suburban community.

Data sources included transcripts of focus group interviews with the children and photographs of students’ drawings. During the first focus group, the research team asked children to share what they knew about nature, the environment, and things that live in and near trees. The interview was loosely structured to allow all children to contribute and to allow the researchers to ask for clarification of responses, as well as to probe for more information. Focus group discussions lasted approximately 10 to 20 minutes.

A short activity-based lesson was held with the children immediately after the focus group discussion. The lesson included the reading of a picture book and a discussion about how trees can be used as habitats. The lesson also included some time outside to give children an opportunity to explore trees around their school and to make observations about how humans, animals, and other plants interact with trees. After the lesson, the children drew pictures describing what they learned. One week later, the children participated in a second focus group discussion in which they were asked to reflect on their experiences related to the lesson on trees.

Findings indicated a shift in focus from the first to second interview. While responses during the first interview consisted primarily of simply naming parts of nature, responses during the second interview included descriptions of interactions between animals, between plants and animals, and between the natural and human-built world. Responses during the second interview also included descriptions of animals and their behaviors. These responses reflect more sophisticated and nuanced understandings of the environment a week after receiving instruction. Based on these findings, the researchers conclude that environmental sustainability education is possible and fruitful during the early childhood years.


Madden, L., Liang, J., (2017). Young children’s ideas about environment: Perspectives from three early childhood educational settings. Environmental Education Research, 23(8), 1055-1071.


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