Nature through the eyes of young Canadians
When I set out to research young Canadians’ views of nature and their childhood experiences within nature, I had no idea that the results would be only the beginning of a larger conversation about the difference between attitude and action.
As a researcher and assistant professor, I have an interest in how students engage with the world — in this case, how experiences in nature foster environmental stewardship later in life.
I interviewed students at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus and found that most (87 per cent, to be exact) of the respondents who played outside as children expressed a love of nature as young adults. Of that group, the majority (84 per cent) indicated that taking care of the environment was a priority for them.
However, those who viewed the environment as a priority didn’t necessarily engage in environmental awareness actions. When I say environmental awareness actions, I don’t mean moving into solar-powered houses; it could be something as simple as recycling or taking public transportation to work or school.
Following these same lines of research, I asked students if they currently engaged in more than three positive actions toward the environment. Of the group, 75 per cent indicated they did — the same percentage as the students who had neutral views of nature and less positive experiences in nature as children.
This lack of action indicates that the experiences in nature we have as young children must be positive, meaningful and educative to be effective. Even more concerning was that not spending time perceived to be positive in nature can lead to a fear of nature, or “biophobia,” in adults.
Having positive experiences in nature as children is important, but much more so are education and the attention to sustainability that we must nurture within children in schools.
Education programs help build students’ knowledge of what they can do as well as reflect on our own impacts on the environment, and why caring for the environment matters. We must invite children to explore their views and relationships with nature.
Why not invite children to tackle the challenges of being environmentally conscious by doing something so simple as recycling disposable products, such as plastic water bottles. Introducing this behaviour to children at an early age sets the stage for them to understand the importance of caring for the environment.
We can also nurture environmental stewardship by encouraging young people to find solutions within themselves, and by empowering them to believe that their actions do matter.
This study had one important lesson for me: although experiences in nature support environmental stewardship, these attitudes don’t necessarily result in positive environmental actions as young adults.
We've come a long way in the last 12 years, when, for example, our greenhouse gas emissions were at an all-time high, but we still have a long way to go. We must understand, at any age, that the decisions we make each day have an influence on our environment. Educators who combine positive experiences in nature for their students, incorporating reflection and the building of knowledge and capabilities for protecting the environment, is vital to fostering future conservationists.