Children: Agents of Change?

Do you remember when you managed to teach your parents or grandparents how to use the internet, Facebook, an iPad or Excel? Do you remember when you were a kid and you succeeded to get your favorite toy or biscuits at the supermarket, just because you could convince your parents these were the best?

It turns out children could potentially induce attitude/behavior changes in their parents under certain conditions… What if we could us this to change attitudes and behaviors for environmental issues, such as polluting or even climate change?

For more than 30 years, environmental education (EE) has been recognized to help the general public to understand its interactions with nature and to create awareness and behavioral changes in favor of the environment. Limitations to reach the masses, or a large proportion of the population have lead educators to think of different techniques, and that is where kids enter the picture with intergenerational learning. Is it suggested that if kids can share environmental knowledge with adults it could influence adult’s attitudes and behaviors, becoming a catalyst for changes. Even though studies on processes by which parents and young people influence one another have been conducted in the past, do we actually have information on how EE would be efficient to create changes in adult’s environmental knowledge, attitudes and behaviors? Do we know which factors facilitate EE transmission and intergenerational learning?

In order to get a better understanding of the potential answers, Duvall & Zint (2007) reviewed relevant articles in this field to determine how this has been studied in the past and if there are any important lessons that could be learned.

The authors were faced with a limited numbers of articles available, only 7 studies between 1992 and 2003, that had been only conducted in developed countries (England, US, Australia, Costa Rica and Canada). Within each studies, they could identify limitations in the methodology used, reducing the chance to accurately evaluate the effects of the intergenerational learning. However, few factors have been recognized to maximize transfer and potentially influence attitudes/behaviors:

– The role of educators involved in the program would be crucial and influence the effectiveness of the EE. If educators are enthusiastic about the environmental project, children would be most likely to discuss environmental issues with their parents.
– Programs explicitly designed to engage parents through take-home activities were more likely to have a greater success in intergenerational transfer compared to programs that just expect kids to actively communicate to their parents about the program. If parents are involved with home-work or class presentations it could lead to greater success in facilitating intergenerational transfer.
– Having parents involved in such programs could also be favorable for student achievement and improved school-community relationships. Schools could be agents of social changes through the school-community partnership and by involving kids and their parents in local issues. Involving members of the community in the school programs might also be important to promote this transfer to the community with mutual learning experiences.
– Children would teach and discuss issues with their parents if:
. They are involved in hands-on activities.
. They have to provide solutions to the environmental issue.
. Procedural and in depth knowledge are given and not only background information.
. Local issues are considered.

The limited access to scientific studies suggests the presence of issues in research questions and methods. It is difficult to evaluate attitude/behavior changes or to estimate if the changes were influenced by the transfer of knowledge or any other external factors. From the methodology issues, the authors suggested few elements to consider:
-The use of follow-up posttests could be crucial to evaluate the durability of the transfer of learning but also the extend to which knowledge have spread towards the community. Information can travel from the children to their parents and spread to the community where attitude changes can be seen on a larger scale. Parental results can be tested through variety of measures, including reported knowledge of program, attitudes and behaviors towards the environment and the community, and increased support for local school.
– The way the program is delivered to the kids can change the impact on the results. Educators might include or exclude important information or alter the duration of the activities potentially lessening the effects of the program. Defining methods to control and normalize the use of EE will be necessary in the future.
– Also as mentioned in Nancy ’s class, it would be important to integrate the program in curricula and mandatory state requirement to optimize their use by teachers.
– Time frame: Long lasting programs (at least 6 months) seem more beneficial to achieve changes in attitudes as opposed to a short program or one-time activities, however this is not consistent for all the studies and it might depends on the environmental issue considered. The time frame over which the results of intergenerational programs should be measured needs to be identified for future studies.

Although few studies have been conducted since this article (Damerell et al., 2013; Rakotomamonjy et al. 2014), more empirical evidence are still needed to fully understand how children could represent an important source of social influence for environmental knowledge, attitudes and behavior among their peers, parents and community. Intergenerational learning appears to be a complex strategy, however it is important for us, science communicators, to incorporate this dimension into our magic communication toolbox to eventually target the right audience when the time comes. There are few factors here that could be interesting to consider for consultancy reports for example, especially when changing behavior is expected from the clients.
The kiwi Guardians here in NZ is a fantastic project which I think incorporate many points presented in this article and can developed discussion between parents and their kids. This is an activity programme for kids to learn about nature, earn cool rewards when they go on epic family adventures. They can look online and plan their adventure in their local area, get information about conservation and local species and get a reward for going to the specific places (There are 8 around Dunedin, including Orokonui).

Here are some questions to consider:
Do you think kids could actually be active social agents and have a real impact?
Do you think the intergenerational knowledge transfer would have the same effect whatever the children’s stage of life?
Could you think of any other ways we could incorporate the concept of intergenerational learning to influence adults or the community?

Cheers 🙂


Damerell, P., Howe, C. & Milner-Gulland, E.J. (2013). Child-orientated environmental education influences adult knowledge and household behaviour. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 015016.

Duvall, J., & Zint, M. (2007). A review of research on the effectiveness of environmental education in promoting intergenerational learning. The Journal of Environmental Education, 38(4), 14.
Rakotomamonjy, S. N., Jones, J. P. G., Razafimanahaka, J. H., Ramamonjisoa, B., & Williams, S. J. (2014). The effects of environmental education on children’s and parents’ knowledge and attitudes towards lemurs in rural Madagascar. Animal Conservation, 18, 157–166.

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