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Addressing eco-anxiety among children – from environmental education to outdoor learning

Concerned about the long-term effects of environmental degradation and climate change, young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg are in the frontline of climate protests currently sweeping the globe. While children of all ages, not just adolescents, are becoming increasingly concerned with environmental change, environmental education programmes in schools, combined with the limited time children spend outdoors, may not be so helpful. In this article, Aurélia Chevreul-Gaud and Sylvia I. Bergh argue that outdoor education can play an important role in helping children reconnect with nature to ease their eco-anxiety.

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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[4] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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

[4] See for example Bola et al. 2022; Hosaka et al. 2017; Rosa et al 2018; Sugiyama et al. 2021.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Aurélia Chevreul-Gaud develops change management strategies to implement outdoor learning on a daily basis. She is a mentor in nature-based education, creator of the 7 Connection Gateways Pedagogy© and holds a master’s degree in change management. She is also a public speaker – see her TEDx performance. Her current project based in The Netherlands, focuses on integrating outdoor learning into urban teachers’ practices and linking it with the International Baccalaureate Primary Year Programme.



Sylvia I. Bergh, is Associate Professor in Development Management and Governance, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), and Senior researcher in the Research group Multilevel Regulation, part of the Centre of Expertise on Global and Inclusive Learning, The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS). Her recent research focuses on the governance of heatwaves, and she is currently starting up a new research project on the Inner Development Goals and how to foster the required skills in future global governance professionals.

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Deglobalisation Series | Deglobalisation 2.0: Trump and Brexit are but symptoms by Peter A.G. van Bergeijk

We live in strange and usual times. Actually, this is what people always do. And all people always think that their era is unique. We seem to live in the times of Trumpism, Brexitism and deglobalisation. It definitely feels like something unique. But it is not.

Our grandparents have been here before. Of course, the voices and characters on the world stage are different. But the stories of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession that we are still living today are similar.

The start is a financial crisis. Then follows a collapse of world trade and world investment that marks the end of decades of intensifying globalisation characterised by increasingly free international trade and capital flows. This collapse starts a period of deglobalisation that at first is hidden under the veil of recovery, but later becomes clear as a reduction of the share of international trade in production. This happened in the 1930s and it is happening now.

Graph Deglobalization 2.0
Deglobalisation 1.0 (in the 1930s) and 2.0 (today)—these two periods are shown in red. Index numbers 2007=100.

Many observers make the error of blaming Trump and Brexit for deglobalisation. They are wrong and confuse the symptoms and the causes of the disease. Why are Trump and Brexit only symptoms? Because the virus of deglobalisation is widespread: the Dutch referendum opposing the treaty with the Ukraine, and the Belgian opposition of the trade agreement between the EU and Canada, are just two examples. And in other countries such as Austria, Germany and France, anti-globalist election platforms have gained significant strength. An interesting observation is that anti-globalism now has a strong foothold in the Global North, with much different attitudes in the Global South, particular among the BRICS countries.

Déjà Vu: The 1930s (and today)

Although deglobalisation is a recurring phenomenon, scientists have so far treated the different periods of deglobalisation as isolated cases, limiting our knowledge of deglobalisation to a hermeneutic understanding of this real-world phenomenon. In science “one” is typically not enough, but economists and political scientists have unfortunately limited their research to the most recent manmade trade disaster at hand.

The problem is that we therefore do not learn from history, do not compare it with other occurrences of the phenomenon, and cannot correctly understand our current situation.

Of course, the two major phases of deglobalisation are not identical twins. I would like to add: fortunately so. One can only learn if both similarities and differences occur. The two phases of deglobalisation were equally triggered by a demand shock in the wake of a financial crisis. Both in the 1930s and in the 2000s the composition of trade was a second key determinant: manufacturing trade bore the brunt of the contraction.

Before the start of deglobalisation, income inequality increased significantly, and the recent rise in inequality has been linked to international trade. And as in the 1930s, the political institutions are key for understanding where and when deglobalisation of economies occurred. Unlike is often assumed, a “world” trade collapse and its deglobalisation aftermath is characterised by significant heterogeneity of country experiences and practices, implying that a one-size-fits-all approach to deglobalisation will be deemed to fail.

Democracy and deglobalisation

The differences, however, are equally important. In the 1930s, democracies supported free trade, and deglobalisation was driven by autocratic decisions to strengthen self-sufficiency. In the 2010s, political institutions are just as significant, but now democratic decisions drive the deglobalisation process worldwide. Indeed, while the industrialised countries this time avoided the pitfalls of protectionism and deflation, they have experienced different political dynamics.

It is important that their significance measurably and significantly occurs well before the presidential elections in the US or the Brexit referendum. Trump and Brexit are consequences of the underlying political dynamics. These manifestations have a self-reinforcing character, but fighting them will not cure the world economy from the deglobalisation virus.

This raises an important question regarding the concept of the liberal peace (trade between democracies reduces the probability of war by increasing the cost of conflict) that underpins the Bretton Woods institutions. Now that the 19th and 20th Century hegemons are repositioning towards lesser integration into the world economy, the maintenance of the multilateral rules for trade and investment are under threat; thus the very concept of the liberal peace may be eroding. It is interesting to see that the developing and emerging economies understand the importance of these rules and regulations against the power play of economic world leaders. China, the emerging hegemon of the 21st Century , is one of those important voices. In the era of Trump and Brexit, it is essential that this voice is heard.

 This contribution is the first of a series of blog articles on deglobalisation. It is based on a peer reviewed journal article that econometrically investigates the deglobalisations of the 1930s and the 2000s:
van Bergeijk, P.A.G. (2018) ‘On the brink of deglobalisation…again’, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society rsx023. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/cjres/rsx023

pag van bergeijkPeter van Bergeijk is Professor of International Economics at the Institute of Social Studies (of Erasmus University Rotterdam), one of Europe’s leading development studies institutes. He is author of On the Brink of Deglobalization: An Alternative Perspective on the Causes of the World Trade Collapse, Edward Elgar 2010. His latest book, Deglobalisation 2.0, is to appear in 2018.