Preschool children can develop empathy for non-human beings, can feel the need to protect them, and recognize their intrinsic value
This study evaluated the impact of an early childhood environmental education program designed to promote environmentally friendly attitudes in five-year-old children. Related program goals addressed the acquisition of environmental knowledge, attitudes, values and behaviors. Program content consisted of four main modules all relating to forests: trees, animals, risks to the forests, and the protection of the forest. Students participating in this study visited a suburban forest at the beginning and during the implementation of the intervention program. While the students lived near the forest, they had rarely visited the forest prior to the program.
The intervention program was implemented over a six-month period, with 17 kindergarten students participating. Activities focused on promoting feelings, especially empathy. Experiential activities designed to help children feel a connection with the world of the forest included listening to the sounds of the forest, embracing tree trunks, and building piles of leaves. Other activities engaged the children in role playing, in discussing and formulating rules for guiding behavior, in stewardship activities (e.g. cleaning the forest, planting trees, etc.), and creating and displaying posters with pro-environmental messages.
Interviews were conducted before and after the intervention program with two groups of children: the experimental group (i.e., the students participating in the environmental education program and a control group (kindergarten students not participating in the intervention). Interview questions focused on environmental attitudes and behaviors in relation to the forest and the plants and animals in the forest. The interview format encouraged the children to give their own interpretations and develop their own arguments.
The experimental group responses differed between the initial and final interview. With the control group, responses remained the same. This difference between the two groups indicates that the intervention program likely influenced the participating children’s environmental attitudes and values. One area of change was in children’s “interest towards other forms of life.” There were 23 related references in the initial interview responses; this increased to 44 in the final interviews. One of the key findings from this research is that young children can take into account the views of others, which in this study were non-human beings. This empathic view reflects an “ecocentric orientation” which means recognizing the needs of non-human beings and being interested in satisfying those needs. The intention to take action to meet the needs of non-human beings is often associated with recognizing the intrinsic value of other beings.
This research supports the use of a multifaceted approach to environmental education with young children. Such an approach may help children develop empathy and environmentally friendly values.
Lithoxoidou, L.S., Georgopoulos, A.D., Dimitriou, A. Th., Xenitidou, S.Ch., (2017). "Trees have a soul too!" Developing empathy and environmental values in early childhood. The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 5(1), 68-88.