Every new generation will have a more impoverished image of nature than the former one.
– Abraham A. Mabelis
Can the need to conserve biodiversity be understood by those who have hardly experienced nature?
Abraham A. Mabelis of the Netherlands wondered this very thing. To answer this question, he knew he had to find out what kind of preconceived ideas and beliefs people had about nature. Interested in what children thought about biodiversity and extinction, he surveyed Dutch school children ages 8-16. The results of his survey are the subject of the paper, Children’s Opinions about the Loss of Nature.
Mabelis (2005) surveyed 400 students — 200 elementary school students
(age 8-12) and 200 secondary school students (age 12-16). These children attended schools that did not have an environmental education program.
Mabelis surveyed students using a questionnaire. Students responded to three groups of questions. The first group inquired about how often students thought about pollution, dying forests, species extinction and accidents at nuclear power plants.
The second group of questions polled students about how seriously they viewed water pollution, air pollution, soil pollution, dying forests, the disappearance of natural forests, species extinction, nuclear power plant accidents, illness and death.
The third group of questions polled students about thoughts of their own future and thoughts about the future of their country.
Students were also asked to share their ideas about how to improve the environment.
Mabelis (2005) observed most of the students surveyed (71%) thought about pollution at least some of the time and that students considered air pollution to be more serious than water and soil pollution. More than half of those surveyed also thought about dying forests and species extinction. Mabelis (2005) observed that elementary school children think about extinction more often than secondary students and that, in general, indifference towards extinction varies by species.
It appears children, regardless of age, view the extinction of “large and attractive” species to be more serious than the extinction of “small and less attractive” species (Mabelis, 2005). He also observed that students viewed the extinction of rare species (he used an orchid as an example) as being more serious than the extinction of a common species such as a dandelion (Mabelis, 2005).
Could children’s views of species extinction be changed through education?
Mabelis (2005) investigated this too and surveyed students again after they received four months of instruction about the environment. He discovered that student indifference towards the extinction of some species can change after receiving visual information and in-class instruction. He observed statistically significant changes in student opinions about the death of forests and dandelion extinction.
When asked to offer suggestions about how to improve the quality of the environment, 70% of elementary school students responded, while 50% of secondary school students responded (Mabelis, 2005). Student suggestions addressed things people can do at home (e.g., recycle, use less packaging, etc.) and included the need to increase the number of natural areas and the need to provide better information about the environment at school (Mabelis, 2005).
Mabelis (2005) elaborates on his findings and student feedback in his paper.
He also compares his study to other European studies and provides insight into what European children think about biodiversity and the loss of nature. Mabelis also categorizes the responses he received from students and offers suggestions about how environmental education programs should be taught.
The core message of Mabelis (2005) is this — to help children understand biodiversity, conservation and nature-friendly behavior, adults need to explain the relationships between society and nature and provide examples of alternative ways of doing things.
How might change be encouraged in a classroom or on an even more personal level such as during spring break or summer vacation? Visit the “Teaching & Learning” column in the margin at right for ideas. Here some examples of what you’ll find:
Mabelis (2005) is available online for free, compliments of the
Environmental Education Association of Southern Africa (see link below).
Mabelis, Abraham A. 2005. Children’s opinions about the loss of nature. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education. 22: 123-136.
Retrieved from http://eeasa.org.za/images/publications/eeasa_journal_22_2005/11-EEASA-Vo_22.pdf.