sealPurdue News

June 1995

Environmental messages pose benefits, risks for children

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Done properly, environmental education has many benefits for children. Done poorly, these messages can be quite a scary lesson for children, say Purdue University researchers specializing in environmental education.

Cherry Delaney, 4-H program coordinator with the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service, says it can be traumatic for children to hear statements about how everything is dying or the world is coming to an end.

"For instance, if you tell a child that there will be no food left in so many years or that a certain animal is dying off, they may get scared by it," Delaney says. "You can, however, temper statements like those with 'but we can recycle our cans and paper to save our natural resources' and let the child know that he or she can make a difference."

She advises parents and educators to involve children in activities they will enjoy and from which they will learn environmental lessons. Recycling, composting, planting trees and learning facts about the soil and water are ways to involve youth in environmentally friendly activities from a very early age.

In research on environmental attitudes in children, Lynn Musser, assistant professor in the Department of Child Development and Family Studies, found that children who are more pro-environmental feel they have more control over their lives. There is an association between protecting the environment and an internal feeling of control and self-worth, she says.

Musser notes that although some pro-environmental actions and attitudes are reinforced in schools, they are originally taught at home.

"It is the degree to which parents involve their children in environmental activities that affects the children's attitudes," she says.

In her data, she sees that the connection between positive attitudes and parents is not so much in how educated the parents are about the environment, but in what they do with their children to learn more about it.

One thing to remember when working with preschool-age children is that even though they may not grasp why something should be done, they do understand that it should be done. Some of the positive attitudes toward environmental issues noted in this age group included actions such as turning the water off while brushing their teeth, feeding the birds, turning lights off when not using them, and knowing that paper should be recycled.

Musser says most of the things that can be taught at this age are simply good life skills.

"It is good living habits not to leave the water running, not to be wasteful," Musser says. "Things like that need to be taught at this age."

For older children, environmental lessons are right outside the window. The staff at Cumberland Elementary School in West Lafayette built a nature center in the courtyard of the building about five years ago to aid in their environmental teaching efforts.

Cathy Rudmann, a second-grade teacher at Cumberland, sees a need for the kind of environmental education that takes place there.

"They have to realize that they don't have to go somewhere to see nature," she says. "It's right in their own backyard. It's just a matter of opening their eyes and telling them what to look for."

Currently, there are a pond, several trees and wild flowers in the nature center. There are tadpoles in the pond teachers can use to explain metamorphic changes in animals. Teachers also encourage the study of insects and plants. The kids can observe a pair of ducks that takes residence in the nature center for a few weeks each spring. Plans are under way to build a pizza garden, and possibly a rock garden, next fall to teach the students about gardening and geology, respectively. In the pizza garden, students and teachers will grow vegetables that are used in making a pizza.

Robbie Dupre and Ross Emery, second-graders at Cumberland, say their favorite part of the nature center is working with the pond.

"We get to look for tadpoles out in the pond and watch them get bigger and grow into frogs," Ross says.

Robbie says: "There are a lot of animals that come in there for us to watch. We saw a bluebird the other day, and the ducks came back today."

Robbie also participated in making a rain gauge for the nature center and enjoys checking it every day to record the rainfall.

Cumberland Elementary received a grant from the Tippecanoe County Soil and Water Conservation office that has allowed Rudmann to educate staff members and to develop materials and make improvements to the nature center.

They have been using Project Wild, an environmental educational program, to introduce to the teachers some nature center activities they can do with students of different age groups. Rudmann is in the process of creating several instructional kits, complete with picture books, worksheets and suggested activities, for different areas of the nature center, such as the pond.

Delaney suggests several nature educational materials for children, most of which are available from local Extension offices. A program called Indiana's Water Riches is geared for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. It teaches how water is used, where it comes from and where it goes, and explains water pollution and water conservation.

She also suggests Project Wild and Project Learning Tree, as well as using 4-H project manuals as supplemental lessons. Several 4-H projects such as Soil and Water Conservation, Geology, Forestry, and Wildlife can be used to teach students and 4-H members of all ages. These manuals have a reading and education section, then suggest activities for the kids to get hands-on experience with the topic. Parents and educators interested in obtaining some of these materials can contact their local Extension office.

Sources: Lynn Musser, (765) 494-8961
Cherry Delaney, (765) 494-8422
Ron Woods, (765) 775-1480
Cathy Rudmann, (765) 775-1480
Writer: Hannah Speaker, (765) 494-8402; Internet
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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