Environmental Education in Early Childhood Education

You’ve probably heard us here at CMP talking about the importance of Environmental Education (EE) in early childhood education, and we’ve touched on it a couple times in our blog as well, but we wanted to show you that it’s certainly not just us that feel it is important. In this blog, I want to touch on the peer reviewed, scientific evidence, that supports our choices to get, and keep, these kids outside and exploring nature. I also hope that I can offer some tips and ideas for you to do at home as well.

Families and social circles have a huge impact on the value a young child places on the environment and the outdoors. You, as parents, decide what interactions your child has with nature; you guide the topics of conversation, demonstrate interest levels and priorities, and determine which, if any, outdoor environmental education programs might be attended (Ewert et al., 2005).

This focus on environmental education for children may need to happen at a very early age. A study done by Eagles & Demare (1999) showed that even sixth graders, children aged 11-12 years, may be too old to make a difference in their attitudes toward the environment; hence why we make it a priority to get our little ones out into nature early.

Environmental Education in Early Childhood Education

So here’s the jist of why EE matters in early childhood education according to scientists and researchers:

  • Ignites passion and interest in learning, which sets students up for future academic success (Farmer, Knapp & Benton, 2007).
  • Increases empathy for living and nonliving things in the environment (White & Stoecklin, 2008), that includes towards humans too!
  • The outdoor-focused participatory nature of EE also creates benefits for children emotionally by reducing stress and building socio-emotional connections (Chawla, Keena, Pevec, & Stanley, 2014).
  • During their experiences, students demonstrate increased skills in self-efficacy, empowerment, and motivation to be an environmental steward (Stern, Powell, & Hill, 2013).
  • Early childhood EE increases environmental awareness and knowledge for students (Cohen & Horm-Wingerd, 1993). Creating a conservation ethic in early childhood sets the foundation that leads to public support of wildlife management and conservation (Council for Environmental Education, 2009).
  • EE has the potential to influence children’s lifelong affiliations, ethics, and attitudes about the outdoors (Wells & Lekies, 2006). Alternatively, research has found that without exposure to nature and the outdoors, students may develop a fear and discomfort of the outdoors. This “biophobia” can lead to apathy about the outdoors and may lead to a feeling that nature is only useful as a disposable resource (White & Stoecklin, 2008).
  • It has been shown that environmental education provided to children was effectively relayed to their parents and other adults in the home and led to an increase in environmentally responsible behaviors (Damerell, Howe & Milner-Gulland, 2013; Vaughan, Gack, Solorazano, & Ray, 2003).

Environmental Education in Early Childhood Education

Suggestions for you, as parents:

We love exposing your kids to EE at school, but home is still the center of their world; therefore, it’s so important to allow them these similar opportunities at home.

I know you’ve heard it, but let your kids get outdoors as much as possible. We are so lucky to live in San Diego where our weather allows us to get outside almost every day. Let them get dirty, let them play in puddles, dig in the dirt, explore bugs and wildlife (safely of course). Even just a walk around the neighborhood looking at the trees or the rollie pollies makes a difference, and make sure they can touch things! The haptic, or tactile aspect of exploration is so important to young children.

Let them ask their own questions, try not to explain everything right away. Turn the questions around on them, and ask them “Why do you think that bee visited the flower?”. Supporting inquiry is great training for their young brains and helps create problem solvers, as opposed to kids who just memorize facts.

Get them involved in community service, go to those beach clean-ups if you can =). Involvement in specific work that benefits their valued setting, like a local clean-up, allows children to see the positive difference their actions can make (Vaske & Kobrin, 2001). This is an empowering feeling that can encourage children to engage in additional environmentally responsible behaviors and may create a conservationist identity that can last a lifetime (Vaske & Kobrin, 2001; Halpenny, 2006).

Avoid an environmental tragedy focus. That’s not to say that you can’t tell your kids the truth. I’m just saying that when they ask why they need to recycle, or not litter, that you give a positive reason and demonstrate how they are helping, rather than talk about the consequences of not doing environmentally sustainable behaviors.

For instance, when you walk or bike to the store instead of driving and your child asks why, you can say that it helps our air stay clean, instead of going into the details about how climate change will impact our planet. No sob stories about polar bears needed. These environmental tragedy stories can cause kids to tune out or feel sad, helpless, and overwhelmed (studies show this impacts adults too of course, but we are better equipped to handle it).

David Sobel puts it well when he says, “What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it, and feel comfortable in it, before being asked to heal its wounds.”

Thanks for reading and, as always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to shoot me an email or chat with me in person at school. Happy trails!

Environmental Education in Early Childhood Education


Chawla, L., Keena, K., Pevec, I., & Stanley, E. (2014). Green schoolyards as havens from stress and resources for resilience in childhood and adolescence. Health & Place, 28, 1-13.

Cohen, S., & Horm-Wingerd, D. (1993). Children and the environment: ecological awareness among preschool children. Environment and Behavior, 25(1), 103-120.

Damerell, P, Howe, C., & Milner-Gulland, E.J. (2013). Child-oriented environmental education influences adult knowledge and household behaviour. Environmental Research Letters, 8, 1-7.

Eagles, P.F.J. & Demare, R. (1999). Factors influencing children’s environmental attitudes. Journal of Environmental Education, 30 (4), 33-38.

Ewert, A., Place, G. & Sibthorp, J. (2005). Early-life outdoor experiences and an individual’s environmental attitudes. Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27(3), 225-239.

Farmer, J., Knapp, D., & Benton, G. M. (2007). An elementary school environmental education field trip: Long-term effects on ecological and environmental knowledge and attitude development. The Journal of Environmental Education, 38 (3), 33-42.

Halpenny, E. A. (2006). Environmental behaviour, place attachment and park visitation: A case study of visitors to Point Pelee National Park.

Stern, M. J., Powell, R. B., & Hill, D. (2013). Environmental education program evaluation in the new millennium: what do we measure and what have we learned? Environmental Education Research, 20(5), 581-611.Environmental Education.

Vaske, J. J., & Kobrin, K. C. (2001). Place attachment and environmentally responsible behavior. The Journal of Environmental Education, 32(4), 16-21.

Vaughan, C., Gack, J., Solorazano, H., & Ray, R. (2003). The effect of environmental education on schoolchildren, their parents, and community members: A study of intergenerational and intercommunity learning. The Journal of Environmental Education, 34(3), 12-21.

Wells, N. M., & Lekies, K. S. (n.d.). Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children, Youth and Environments, 16(1), 1-24. Retrieved from http://www.colorado.edu/journals/cye

White, R., & Stoekclin, V.L. (2008). Nurturing children’s biophilia: Developmentally appropriate environmental education for young children. White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group. Retrieved from: www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/downloads/nurturing.pdf on 3/16/2016.

Environmental Education in Early Childhood Education