Early childhood and connecting with nature

Effect of environmental education on the knowledge of aquatic ecosystems and reconnection with nature in early childhood

Maria João Feio, Ana Isabel Mantas, Sónia R. Q. Serra, Ana Raquel Calapez, Salomé F. P. Almeida, Manuela C. Sales, Mário Montenegro, Francisca Moreira

Summarized by Habiba Rabiu, a student of environmental geosciences at Fort Hays State University. Habiba is interested in all aspects of environmental science and conservation & sustainability. She would like to work in educating others about those topics. In her free time, she likes to read, write, and bake.

What data were used? In 2018, the environmental educational project CresceRio was created in the city of Coimbra, Portugal, to encourage the populace to reconnect with nature, preserve and protect the streams found in the area, and teach children about the importance of the streams and preserving green and blue (terrestrial and aquatic) ecosystems. Most children who live in the city had little exposure to nature and expressed fear and incorrect knowledge about the streams and rivers in their area. It was proposed that introducing field trips to natural areas and hands-on activities to school curriculums would be a low cost yet effective way to improve their relationship with the natural world. 

Methods: Over the course of 14 months, the researchers conducted several surveys with a class of 24 students (aged 5–6 at the beginning of the program). At particular intervals (labeled M), the children were questioned about five main topics: their identification and background, their awareness of streams and rivers, their recognition of the biodiversity that existed in the rivers, their awareness of various factors negatively affecting the rivers, and their awareness of the ecosystem services provided by rivers to the population. 

M1 occurred at the beginning of the program (September 2018) and was followed the next month by a trip to a stream outside of the city that was not seriously affected by urban activity. M2 occurred in November 2018, and the students visited an urban stream that was visibly affected by urban activity including construction, removal of trees, and litter. In February 2019, the students participated in a laboratory class where they examined fallen leaves and were taught to identify various invertebrates and algae using microscopes. M3 took place in March 2019, followed by a workshop in June 2019 where they reviewed photos and videos and discussed what they learned from their previous activities. In October 2019 they visited another urban stream that was slightly less altered than the one they visited before. The last survey was conducted in November 2019 and was done in the form of group interviews. 

Results: The three main takeaways that the researchers identified were 1) that children in urban areas have little contact with or knowledge of nature, 2) after a year of exploring the streams and their ecosystems their knowledge increased (both about the ecosystems and the problems they face) and their fears decreased, and 3) the long duration of the program was key as changes in their attitude and knowledge only became clear after a few activities.

In all five categories explored (personal background and experience, awareness of aquatic ecosystems, recognition of biodiversity, awareness of issues affecting rivers, and awareness of services provided by rivers) the students showed increased interest and cognizance of the streams by the end of the program. Students were more aware of the streams close to where they live as well as the animals (other than fish) that lived there, such as birds and insects. The activities and field trips lessened their fears of imaginary creatures or animals like alligators that did not exist in Portuguese rivers and made them more appreciative of the streams as a resource for water and recreation. They also acknowledged the presence of trees on the banks of the streams that provided oxygen, shelter, and food for animals. The children also showed an increased negativity for litter, lack of trees, too many reeds (that grow unchecked when trees are removed and choke the stream) and too many buildings around the streams. The students were also reported as saying that they would not litter and would discourage others from doing so as well.

The bar graph shows 3 bars for each organism, showing the percentage of students that recognize that organism at the time of the M1, M2, and M3 surveys. Approximate values are: Fauna Fish: M1- 60%, M2- 92%, M3- 87% Invertebrates: M1- 30%, M2- 40%, M3- 75% Insects: M1- 42%, M2- 44%, M3- 33% Dragonflies: M1- 39%, M2- 50%, M3- 68% Butterflies: M1- 30%, M2- 25%, M3- 22% Mosquitoes: M1- 48%, M2- 45%, M3- 38% Shrimps: M1- 60%, M2- 47%, M3- 53% Aquatic snails: M1- 25%, M2- 59%, M3- 30% Mammals: M1- 21%, M2- 19%, M3- 38% Amphibians: M1- 12%, M2- 22%, M3- 25% Birds: M1- 27%, M2- 37%, M3- 30% Aquatic flora Algae: M1- 60%, M2- 82%, M3- 97% Filamentous green algae: M1- 39%, M2- 45%, M3- 79% Aquatic plants: M1- 39%, M2- 63%, M3- 70% Trees Alders: M1- 23%, M2- 18%, M3- 38% Willows: M1- 17%, M2- 27%, M3- 62% Poplars: M1- 10%, M2- 40%, M3-70 % Oaks: M1- 21%, M2- 50%, M3- 70% Ash trees: M1- 17%, M2- 18%, M3- 37%
Figure 1: The percentage of students that can recognize particular flora or fauna over time and as they are more exposed to streams and the organisms that live there.

Why is this study important? Children growing up in urban areas are exposed to various pollutants and obstacles that come from living in the city. Being consistently exposed to nature from an early age can help to combat those negative effects and promote health and wellbeing. Additionally, learning about the importance of aquatic ecosystems naturally inspires children to be interested in conservation and sustainability. This study showed that when given the opportunity to have real experiences in nature, they form their own positive opinions and ideas.

The big picture: Conservation of green and blue ecosystems is dependent on future generations having genuine understanding of and connections to nature. Introducing environmental studies, complete with hands-on activities, to primary education curriculums is an effective way to nurture those connections. Children should be exposed to the natural spaces close to their schools and homes in order to feel connected to nature and have a deeper learning experience.

In the “before” images (a) and (b), the children drew pictures where only a small portion depicts the stream. A few fish are shown, but most of the detail shows the dock, land, buildings and trees, a large portion of sky, and in image (b) lots of people. In the “after” images (c) and (d), the children’s pictures show a large amount of water and a lot of biodiversity, with pictures of insects, snails, and birds.
Figure 2: Pictures drawn by students after their first field trip (a and b) and after their second field trip and laboratory class (c and d)

Citation: Feio MJ, Mantas AI, Serra SRQ, Calapez AR, Almeida SFP, et al. (2022) Effect of environmental education on the knowledge of aquatic ecosystems and reconnection with nature in early childhood. PLOS ONE 17(4): e0266776. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266776

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