University of Cambridge

The Importance of Children's Participation in Environmental Issues

Increased moral, ethical, social and political concerns about changes in the environment due to the effects of global warming have resulted in the development of increased interest in environmental education and awareness of children (Littledyke, 2002) hence, there have been many researches carried out into children’s understanding of their environment and related issues. This paper seeks to explore the extent to which children could play an important role in environmental issues. It is reasonable to suggest that catching them young is an effective way of creating environmental awareness and this may result in eco-soldiers in their later lives. It could be argued that this generation, more than any other before, will need the environmental awareness and citizenship that is instilled through the interaction and exploration of their natural environment through education.

Children represent an influential market that directs parental expenditure and the argument for their importance in decision making in all spheres of life is becoming more persuasive and more widely accepted (Strong, 1998). Strong (1998) further suggests that children are able to use information from school to choose environmentally friendly products and play a role in how their parents act. In this regard, schools play an important role in the formation of positive attitudes towards the environment in young people. It is, therefore, reasonable to suggest that lack of awareness is one of the obstacles to development. Arguably, a child who does not know what things are harmful to the environment is unlikely to respect the environment and may not, therefore, have good environmental attitudes.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA, 2009) has noted that about a quarter of the UK population are young people below 19 years of age. Children and young people, the HPA (2009) suggests, can be especially vulnerable to environmental determinants of disease and exposure to environmental hazards than adults. By the UK government putting in place strategies that focus on environmental factors that impact on young people’s health (HPA, 2009), there have been substantial improvements in the quality of the environment in the UK that have resulted in measurable improvements in children’s health. However, the HPA (2009) acknowledges that despite these advances, there are areas such as environmental awareness that can still be improved. It can be suggested that as the understanding of the connection between environmental awareness and children’s health advances, areas that need further improvements could be identified and acted upon.

The UK government has also set out policies and enacted laws such as the Climate Change Act 2008 (Defra, 2008) as a measure it can use to cut the UK’s emission of greenhouse gases. Defra (2008) suggests that the government recognises the importance of schools and young people in meeting its carbon reduction commitment. It could, nevertheless, be debated that although there are such laws and acts to protect the environment, if the children are not aware of them and the benefits of a good environment, then their role will be very minimal. Furthermore, research carried out by the Green Alliance (2004) revealed that children are losing their connection with the natural environment; and that the worse a local environment looks the less the children are able to play freely. The research further suggests that children from poor environments are unlikely to develop habits and commitments that will enable them to address environmental problems adequately in the future. The Green Alliance (2004) argues that new ways need to be found that facilitate environmental education for children through out-of-school learning and green school designs. 

As Green Alliance (2004) has pointed out, children are a powerful symbol of the future and hence they provide us with a compelling reason to protect the environment. With their involvement in the implementation of environmental policies as well as a prolonged and repeated interaction with the natural environment, it could be debated that children would be conditioned to develop a sense of care for the environment. It can therefore be suggested that new ways need to be found that facilitate environmental education through out-of-school learning and green school designs. The inclusion of Environmental Studies in school curriculums could result in teachers having the confidence to deliver out-of-classroom teaching which could lead to better environmental awareness and attitudes in children (Defra, 2007). Every child should be entitled to outdoor learning, such as field trips, if they are to be connected to their natural environment (Green Alliance, 2004). It could be debated that the opportunity to investigate and explore the natural environment provides children with the knowledge and understanding of how they could use their surroundings. It is reasonable to suggest that such knowledge may result in their appreciation of what they have and develop good attitudes towards the environment.

The importance of children in environmental issues has been acknowledged by the International Standards Organisation (ISO, 2003) by developing a ‘Kids’ ISO 14000 programme. ISO (2003) describes that the ‘Kids’ ISO 14000 aims to promote environmental awareness among children worldwide and enable them to take practical steps to improve the environment. It teaches them to implement environmental management based on the ISO 14000 approach in their homes and communities and also aims to encourage the formation of networks of children both locally and internationally in order for them to work together on global environmental issues. ISO (2003) contends that the Kids’ ISO 14000 is a powerful learning tool which helps children to achieve measurable environmental results on their own doorsteps and forms responsible, environmentally mature citizens with a global outlook.

It is reasonable to suggest that the Kids’ ISO 14000 has become even more relevant as communication technology has become more accessible to children than never before in the history of mankind. A comprehensive report by the London School of Economics on internet usage by young people in the 9-19 year old age range in the UK (Adam, 2009) indicates that 98% have access to the internet with 74% having access at home and 35% with access in their bedrooms. Adam (2009) highlights other researches by the charity Personal Finance Education Group (PFEG) and the media regulator ofcom which reveal that 75% of all UK children aged 7 years and older owned “at least” one mobile phone. With the internet providing social networking sites such as Facebook, Myspace and YouTube and mobile phones providing text and picture messaging facilities, communication among children has never been easier. It could be debated that this technology has provided a new opportunity for children’s participation in environmental matters. Technology has offered youths opportunities to form youth groups, play schemes and other forums for them to be able to contact other children around the world and encourage them to be aware of how their actions can affect their environment. Arguably, if one child can reduce their own impacts and influence their immediate families and communities then millions of children together can make an enormous difference.

Evidence gathered by Odell (2009) suggests that children who are ‘green’ are militant and see themselves as the eco-kids bent on re-educating their parents and develop confidence to carry the eco message home. Odell (2009) states that a survey carried out in 2008 by the UK Social Investment Forum showed 24% of parents cited their children as a key green motivator and concluded that children are more powerful in getting environmental ideas across than either politicians or the media. This idea has been backed by Defra (2007) who part-fund the Eco-schools programme. Defra (2007) states that: “Children are the key to changing society’s long-term attitudes to the environment“.  This is supported by research finding at Durham University (Palmer and Suggate, 2004) which showed that children as young as 4 years of age are capable of making accurate statements about the effects of environmental changes on habitats and living things; and that in some instances they reminded adults to switch off the lights when not in use. Arguably, children from all ages are capable of showing concern for caring for their environment.

Studies by Barraza and Walford (2002) in Mexico and the UK found that levels of environmental understanding amongst children are higher in schools with strong orientation in environmental studies than schools with no environmental policies. This evidence is supported by findings of the Institute for Research on Environment and Sustainability (IRES, 2008) at Newcastle University which suggests that environmental awareness and participation by children are more effective in schools where environmental policies are well developed and that children from such schools are more likely to apply their knowledge in the local environment within their neighbourhoods. Conversely, the same research revealed that children taught by teachers with inadequate understanding of environmental issues show little interest in their environment.

There are, however, some sceptics who object to the involvement of children in environmental matters (Odell, 2009). Among the objecting voices, Odell (2009) points out, are Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and author of ‘The End of Education’ and Professor David Uzzell at Surrey University. Odell (2009) quotes Furedi as stating that it is not right to worry children with environmental matters at an early age as they may end up just acting like ‘super-virtuous eco-bots’ without really thinking about their actions. Uzzell on-the-other-hand claims to have conducted research on children as a catalyst of environmental change in the UK, Portugal, Denmark and France (Odell, 2009). The finding of this study, as Uzzell is cited by Odell (2009), was that the use of children as shock troops for environmental change does not work and that “children coming home and proselytizing is not the answer.” Uzzell concludes that (Odell, 2009) it only works in a household which has a well-informed middle-class family where the parents were willing to play pupil and allow the child to play teacher.

It could however be contended that removing children from the environmental equation would be unwise and counterproductive since many environmental problems, such as climate change, have an impact even on future generations that do not participate in present decisions.  It could be debated that the challenge should rather be to ensure that children’s involvement in decision-making on their environment is meaningful and can be translated into real and consistent consideration of their needs. Catling (2005) points out that children do not escape the vagaries, the benefits and the issues of the world at large, and that schools and communities in general have the responsibility to engage with them about it. Catling (2005) contends that schools should have high expectations of children and make them to be knowledgeable about their locality and the world at large. The Green Alliance (2004) has pointed out that children are a powerful symbol of the future and should not only play a passive role in the development and implementation of environmental policy. Arguably, encouraging them to participate in the environmental debate and decision-making could have a wider impact on environmental awareness and citizenship in the longer term. On behalf of the UK Government (Defra, 2007), the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) aims to ensure that sustainable development and environmental awareness is embedded in the core education agenda across all education and skills sectors.

It could be concluded from the above studies that the saying ‘think global, act local’ is even more valid when thinking about children’s environmental awareness. The global environmental issues, it could be debated, will continue to get more complex and the generation we are currently fostering is likely to face even tougher environmental challenges. As the Green Alliance (2004) puts it:

“This generation more than any other before will need the environmental

awareness and citizenship that is instilled through exploration of the natural    

environment in childhood.”

In addition, policy makers, it could be suggested, would benefit greatly from listening more to children’s views on environmental issues and respecting their opinions and perspectives as well as taking them as key players on global environmental issues. Whichever approach is taken, it should be clear that the environmental problems being faced by humankind are real, and that if they are to be tackled, and negative trends reversed, immediate and positive action is necessary (Curran, 1998). Curran (1998) contends that every individual and organisation, large or small, can make a contribution and that every contribution is important. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that an increase in children’s awareness of both the environmental issues and the responses that can be made to them is of paramount importance now and in the future.


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