I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.
What are the positive benefits of nature-based, environmental education? Are there any long-term effects? How does environmental education enhance our connections to one another and nature? How does it promote empathy and responsibility? Researchers have examined all of these questions.
Generally speaking, we know that early connections to nature lead to conservationist and environmentalist tendencies later in life. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, nature boosts self-esteem, encourages patience, and reduces bullying in preschool 1 How do these positive effects carry over into later years?
Catherine Koons-Hubbard writes in “Life After Nature Preschool”,
Part of the purpose of Nature Preschool is to lay a foundation for what comes next. This means not only developing environmental awareness. It means developing an understanding of community, of feeling that one is valued, and valuing others in return. It means developing respect for all living things, and understanding the interdependence between animals, people, plants, and habitats.
It also means developing self-efficacy: the realization that one has the skills necessary to achieve one’s goals. Whether the skills are physical (balance, coordination, spatial), cognitive (knowing how to problem solve, ask questions, and seek answers), or emotional (having control over one’s own feelings, being able to make friends and interact in a group) part of our purpose is to help children develop confidence in their own abilities. This goes beyond self-esteem, which is based on receiving praise from others. Self-efficacy comes when children are challenged, take risks, overcome, and know for a fact that they can succeed, because they have the strength, determination, and ability to do so.
Having confidence in one’s own abilities does not end when preschool ends. Being part of a community does not end when preschool ends. When we talk to kindergarten and first grade teachers, they tell us our former Nature Preschool children are often the peacemakers at their new schools. They are also actively engaged with their own learning. They look outside on a rainy day and wonder about what’s out there. They jump in puddles. They connect. No one has ever left our nature-based program and found they could not handle the academic content of kindergarten and first grade. (In fact, what they generally struggle with is sitting still and completing worksheets when the world outside the window beckoned.)2
These effects may not be as easy to measure as academic scores, but anecdotal evidence provides repeated examples of how nature provides young children with strong social and emotional skills from the connections it fosters both with the natural world and their peers.
One study explored the effects of environmental education on children in grades 3-9. Children attended a day camp focused on soil and water. The researchers found that even a short nature-based education program had positive effects.
The objectives were to create environmental awareness, building a connection to the environment, changing the perception youth has on the environment. Results revealed a significant increase in awareness among the elementary group. Elementary participants became more inclined to spend their own free time helping to fix problems in nature. This shows that the Science Camp Explore engaged a sense of responsibility among the children, creating a connection to the environment. The results of elementary group in the pre vs. follow-up questionnaire displayed a significant change in perception when asked the importance of animals to humans.3
Another study looked at 4th graders in Florida that participated in a mandatory environmental education program. Researchers looked at children’s previous attitudes towards nature and looked at how they influenced their participation.
The results suggest four dimensions in the children’s connection to nature index: (a) enjoyment of nature, (b) empathy for creatures, (c) sense of oneness, and (d) sense of responsibility. Children’s connection to nature influences their intention to participate in nature-based activities in the future. Children’s connection to nature, their previous experience in nature, their perceived family value toward nature, and their perceived control positively influenced their interest in performing environmentally friendly behaviors.4
As parents, we can positively influence our children’s connection to nature. We can foster their sense of empathy, responsibility, and connections. These positive effects of environmental education carryover into all aspects of life improving social and emotional well-being.
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