From an early age, children are exposed to a wealth of information on environmental degradation and disasters featured in the media and in conversations among adults. Indeed, their approach to the world around them is mainly – if not only – shaped by this information. Environmental education programmes provided to children by primary schools are based on the idea that broadening the scope of the information children receive can help ensure an understanding of how human action impacts the environment and can foster their desire to act.
Raising children’s awareness of environmental risks and of the need to save the planet at first sight seems to be a good idea, as it can theoretically help them become responsible, problem-solving adults that can shape the world they want to live in. But what if it’s not that simple in case of children? With one of us being an outdoor learning specialist for primary schools, and with both of us having school-age children, we observe a large gap between the theory taught at schools and what happens once children step outside the classroom. Children seem to be out of touch with nature and don’t know how to interact with it, having internalized the discourse that they are harming instead of healing the natural world.
The question then arises: Are standard educational programmes centred on environmental disasters as effective as they seem, or are they simply engaging in fearmongering in a way that paralyses instead of inspires children to act?
Environmental education in its current form often leads to eco-anxiety among children. Why do we say this? We have observed that through environmental education programmes in primary schools, children between the ages of 4 and 12 learn that the environment is being threatened because of human action and that they have an important role in addressing this. They are taught about threats that include climate change, deforestation, drought, biodiversity loss, and plastic in the oceans. And they are taught that they have to act.
But how can they respond to such big and often-distant disasters? These are serious, anxiety-provoking questions whose solutions are far beyond their reach. The burdens are too heavy for their young shoulders to bear and not appropriate for their age and emotional development; their inability to act while watching the world around them crumble leads to eco-anxiety. Australian research shows that 44% of children are worried about how climate change will affect them in the future, and one-quarter of children believe that the world will end before they reach old age.
And their responses to environmental harm can be inappropriate. We meet many primary-school students who react strongly to environmental harm, showing their love for nature and passion for saving the planet (listen to a podcast on this here). Sometimes with tears in their eyes, they vehemently warn others to tread lightly, using expressions such as “You are hurting the tree!” when a friend scratches an elm or a beech tree or “You are killing nature” when someone is walking in a field of daisies.
Such severe and inappropriate reactions reveal not only a misunderstanding among children about the resilience of nature and how humans harm the natural world rooted in limited interaction with it but also the intensity of the anxiety younger children have about their relationship with the environment. Eco-anxiety among young children not only leads to critical mental health impacts such as depression, anger and fear but also to inappropriate coping mechanisms such as denial and cognitive dissonance. Indeed, “they are indifferent or afraid,” a secondary school teacher remarked when we asked him how his students react when he teaches on the environment.
Why and how is environmental education giving rise to eco-anxiety?
Most so-called environmental education programmes, meant to be inspiring and playful, are designed to be delivered in the classroom, often involving brand-new plastic toys, computers, or even virtual reality components. Children are asked to consider how to solve ‘environmental’ problems from behind computers and use these gadgets, but seldom go outdoors to observe what’s actually happening.
But a transition to outdoor learning programmes can help foster deeper connections between children and the natural world.
Outdoor nature education programmes in primary schools nurtures love for and a feeling of being one with nature, as well as long-lasting pro-environmental behaviours. It gives children a solid – and joyful – base to develop a balanced set of problem-solving skills which involves emotions, thinking, and action. It fosters holistic thinking. When we provide regular education in nature, children become sufficiently comfortable with and curious about the living world. When day-to-day learning happens in nature, then the outdoors is not a place or resource anymore; the living world becomes their home.
In addition, spending time in nature offers children essential conditions to heal from depression and anxiety, especially eco-anxiety. An extensive body of research shows that nature-based education is absolutely essential for developing a holistic understanding of and a strong, positive connection with nature. This is echoed in observations made by some of the 10-year-old pupils that participated in a dance lesson we organised outdoors. “I feel freer,” one exclaimed, while another believed that “we feel more inspired”.
What does this mean for primary school teachers and curricula?
Outdoor learning should not be the privilege of a few forest schools located far from the cities in which we live. It is possible in many traditional urban schools. But to integrate it more widely, we need teachers trained to deliver a substantial part of their curriculum through nature: we need to teach them how to design an outdoor lesson plan that meets their objectives, how to manage risk and safety wisely, how to take advantage of small local urban nature islands, and how to deal with bio-phobia (their own and that of their pupils). We need teachers to be equipped with environmental programmes promoting connections with nature and to be supported and appreciated by their schools and the parents.
And the payoffs are substantial. When we see pupils learning outdoors with a teacher who took the plunge, we see joyful children who are able to focus on their learning and who also develop an authentic connection with nature – children who have an idea of the smell of a slug (“like the rain”), who are curious and know what to expect when digging into the soil, or who respect fungi and pass on a wise approach toward them. We see knowledgeable students who are getting prepared to act wisely and in harmony with nature.
 Tucci, J., Mitchell, J., & Goddard, C. (2007). Children’s fears, hopes and heroes:
Modern childhood in Australia. Australian Childhood Foundation and National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse, Monash University, Ringwood, Victoria.
 Léger-Goodes, T., Malboeuf-Hurtubise, C., Mastine, T., Généreux, M., Paradis, P., & Camden, C. (2022). Eco-anxiety in children: A scoping review of the mental health impacts of the awareness of climate change. Frontiers in Psychology, 13 Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.872544.
 Liefländer, A. K., Fröhlich, G., Bogner, F. X., & Schultz, P. W. (2013). Promoting connectedness with nature through environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 19(3), 370-384. doi:10.1080/13504622.2012.697545
 See for example Bola et al. 2022; Hosaka et al. 2017; Rosa et al 2018; Sugiyama et al. 2021.