Since the 1970s, how children use environments and how physical environments influence child development have been important topics in environmental psychology and the interdisciplinary field of environment and behavior studies more broadly, as evidenced in Altman and Wohlwill 1978. This work brings together social scientists with people who shape environments through urban planning and design, architecture, and landscape architecture. Extended reviews of this literature in Heft and Wohlwill 1987 and Evans 2006 and the edited collections Weinstein and David 1987 and Spencer and Blades 2006 apply theories of cognitive psychology and child development with the goal of understanding how to create environments that best support children. Holloway and Valentine 2000 is influenced by the sociology of childhood, which argues that childhood and children’s use of space are social constructions, and therefore it emphasizes changes in children’s place experience depending on social contexts. Dudek 2005 and Day and Midbjer 2007 illustrate efforts by architects to apply principles of child development to design.
Altman, Irwin, and Joachim Wohlwill, eds. Children and the Environment. New York: Plenum, 1978.
E-mail Citation »
Opening chapters present influential theories and supporting evidence related to four settings of children’s lives: the natural environment, home environments, neighborhood landscapes, and schools. Concluding chapters consider how children’s interactions with the environment can serve the functions of privacy, spatial cognition, and participatory planning.
Day, Christopher, and Anita Midbjer. Environment and Children. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2007.
E-mail Citation »
Essays that discuss how built environments affect children’s health, behavior, education, imagination, and their connection to the earth. The book draws on the first author’s experience designing schools, kindergartens, and childcare centers, but it generalizes design principles to home environments as well. Illustrated with drawings of design patterns.
Dudek, Mark, ed. Children’s Spaces. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2005.
E-mail Citation »
A collection focused on design for children, emphasizing schools and schoolyards but including playgrounds, gardens, communities, and digital landscapes. It examines connections between design and children’s learning, advocating that children are competent and creative and need opportunities to express their environmental needs. Useful for the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, and education.
Evans, Gary. “Child Development and the Physical Environment.” Annual Review of Psychology 57 (2006): 423–451.
DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190057E-mail Citation »
A review of characteristics of the physical environment that influence child development, with an emphasis on risk factors: toxic exposure, noise, crowding, poor housing, and neighborhood quality. A section on schools and daycare centers reviews the impacts of school size, building quality, open-plan designs, lighting, and indoor climate.
Heft, Harry, and Joachim Wohlwill. “The Physical Environment and the Development of the Child.” In Handbook of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 1. Edited by Daniel Stokols and Irwin Altman, 281–328. New York: Wiley, 1987.
E-mail Citation »
Anchored in theoretical approaches to understanding the role of the physical environment in child development, this chapter analyzes the environment as a source of stimulation, feedback, and affordances. It applies these perspectives to research on the home, institutional environments, outdoor spaces,and natural and urban environments and discusses implications for design.
Holloway, Sarah, and Gill Valentine, eds. Children’s Geographies. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2000.
E-mail Citation »
An examination of children’s use of the environment in three domains: “Playing” (leisure use of streets, public spaces, commercial facilities, and rural areas), “Living” (family rules, cyberspace, and streets as home for street children), and “Learning” (regulated space use in primary schools, playgrounds, childcare centers, and cities).
Spencer, Christopher, and Mark Blades, eds. Children and Their Environments: Learning, Using and Designing Spaces. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511521232E-mail Citation »
This collection focuses on how children understand and experience places and participate in their design, with a section dedicated to adolescent experiences. Apart from one chapter on classrooms, it features large-scale environments such as countries, cities, towns, neighborhoods, and natural areas.
Weinstein, Carol, and Thomas David, eds. Spaces for Children: The Built Environment and Child Development. New York: Plenum, 1987.
E-mail Citation »
The majority of chapters in this collection are setting specific: the home, playgrounds, childcare settings, and institutions such as schools and juvenile detention centers. Additional chapters discuss children’s interactions with the environment through play, place identity, and participation in design processes.
Drawingontheprinciplesandpracticesofyouthdevelopmentcontributestoachievingstrongstewardshipoutcomes.Too often, fields of study evolve in silos, missing the opportunity to put knowledge, evidence, and experience to work in adjacent fields. The most effective EE programs serving kids avoid this trap and draw on the wealth of learning in the positive youth development field. Positive youth development is “an intentional, prosocial approach that engages youth within their communities, schools, organizations, peer groups, and families in a manner that is productive and constructive; recognizes, utilizes, and enhances young people’s strengths; and promotes positive outcomes for young people by providing opportunities, fostering positive relationships, and furnishing the support needed to build on their leadership strengths.” (Youth.gov)
The youth development literature is vast (visit this national clearinghouse and access a program quality framework). Positive youth development frameworks abound, many defining the social-emotional competencies that youth-serving programs should nurture (a good example comes from CASEL). In our experience, EE programming effectively engages young people and can achieve significant stewardship outcomes when it:
- Is relevant and provides opportunities for service;
- Ensures safety and nurtures positive youth-adult relationships; and
- Builds life skills.
Relevance and Service. EE programs can build approaches around the issues and skills that matter most to youth participants. Leaders should consider cultural relevance as well as geographic relevance, particularly since many view the EE field as largely developed by people from White middle- to upper-class backgrounds. Understand where program participants are coming from with respect to their experience and comfort in the natural environment. Design ways to engage them from this starting point – and move forward incrementally to create lasting impacts.
Youth without much experience in the outdoors and with little or no prior exposure to environmental education may not immediately see the relevance of EE programming. A strategy for making EE meaningful begins with their voices: Ask what issues they care about in their community and identify (the inevitable) connections to environmental topics. Next, explore ways they can make a positive difference in their community and for the environment through service. Service activities might include organizing and advocating for a healthier local environment, building and maintaining a community garden, cleaning up parks and shared green spaces, or teaching neighbors about environmental concerns and ways to make a difference. Providing youth with opportunities to take on leadership roles in service activities, and to work together to solve problems (see below), activates social-emotional development and can deepen their commitment to environmental stewardship.
Safety and Relationships. EE programs can provide safe space that allows young people to be themselves while also fostering caring and supportive adult-youth relationships. These spaces and relationships build trust, and enable kids to try out and develop new ways of thinking and behaving. The best youth-adult relationships place the young person at the center; their interests gain primacy over any adult-drive agenda or goals. Authentic adult mentors model positive character, meet young people where they are, and focus on building warm, empathic connections.
Adults can also build relationships with young people through intentional conversations about character (see this content from the Search Institute) and by teaching social and emotional competencies (here is more good information from CASEL). They can also handle disciplinary matters in empowering and constructive ways – such as promoting reflection and giving back to the group.
EE programs that promote safety and build positive youth-adult relationships provide young people with opportunities to collaborate with peers and adults, share opinions, and work in teams. The programs that safely support young people in stretching outside of their comfort zones – but not so far that anxiety gets in the way of learning – achieve better stewardship and youth development outcomes.
Life-Skill Building. Most EE programs naturally include great opportunities for outdoor experiential learning. Achieving positive stewardship outcomes can be enhanced through approaches that build life skills while teaching about the environment and conservation. EE programs can elevate skills such as problem-solving, coping, and assertiveness through activities such as identifying and removing invasive species, repairing trail systems, or cleaning up a river bank. Citizen science – the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists – is another way to teach young people valuable physical, intellectual, and social skills through engagement with nature.
EE programs can help grow other life skills as well – for example, cultural literacy, media literacy, and communication. They can help form good habits of the mind, prepare young people for adult employment, and fuel new levels of social and cultural capital. Depending on your population, focus, and resources, you may also want to consider providing paid, supportive environmentally-focused work opportunities. We have found that improvement in “workforce” or “professional” skills is correlated with better stewardship outcomes.
Steven LaFrance, Founder and CEO of LFA, prepared this essay as part of an overall effort that the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation funded to develop the “Better Results Toolkit”; together, the Toolkit and essay are intended to strengthen the effectiveness of EE programs across the U.S. and beyond. We thank Bob Tobin and the excellent team at Williams Group for their partnership in refining the final Toolkit and essay products for dissemination.