In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Education and Children

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Policy Background
  • Edited Collections
  • Journals
  • Systematic Reviews of Research
  • Environmental Education and National Curricula
  • Young People’s Proposals for Action-Oriented Environmental Education
  • Place-Based Environmental Education Pedagogies
  • Critical Environmental Education
  • Majority World Environmental Education
  • Teaching Guides and Resources

Childhood Studies Environmental Education and Children
Catherine Walker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0205


Environmental education (EE) is an interdisciplinary field of educational and social science research and pedagogic practice. Scholars working in the field trace the formal emergence of EE to the late 1960s, when evidence of strains in the relationship between humans and the nonhuman environment made human-environment relations an object of scientific concern and debate in many (largely Global North) contexts. Various national EE bodies, as well as the first (US-based) journal dedicated to EE, were established around this time. EE was formalized on a global scale and assigned a set of global objectives through a series of conferences convened by the United Nations (UN) under the governance of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These conferences have secured EE as a policy tool within the architecture of global environmental governance, most notably through the UNESCO-led “Education for Sustainable Development” (ESD) framework, which, in its current phase, is closely aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Nonetheless, pedagogic practices of teaching in and about “the environment” predate top-down formalization in national and global contexts and are much more diverse than published EE research and policy initiatives might suggest. The disproportionate volume of anglophone research published in, if not on, Global North contexts means that debates and developments in EE research reprise particular historical and cultural viewpoints and may not be reflective of the environmental and educational concerns of lesser published contexts. Reviews—often critical—of top-down EE initiatives may also give the impression that such global initiatives are more of a defining force in education than may be the case in many local contexts, where many educators struggle to incorporate EE into the demands of national curricula or university courses. Despite these caveats, the growth of EE as a field of research and practice reflects increasing recognition of the fundamental challenges posed to and by human-environment relations and the urgency of using education—in all its many forms and guises—to find ways to resolve these challenges and promote socio-ecological justice. Owing in no small part to the increasing calls led by young people across the world for action on climate change, climate change and climate justice are central points of focus in EE policy initiatives, yet these points of focus do not always translate to classrooms and pedagogic practices within the broad remit of what is known and taught as EE.

General Overviews

The following publications provide overviews of the emergence and formalization of environmental education (EE), as well as its subsequent diversification. Gough 2013 locates the emergence of EE in growing concerns in the 1960s among North American educators over signs of environmental degradation, which were brought to public attention by scientists. Gough describes how after five decades of development, EE research encompasses a wide array of concerns and epistemological perspectives. Kopnina 2012 also describes the plurality of approaches in contemporary EE and reviews trends to encourage this plurality in reaction to what liberal scholars interpret as moves to make EE overly instrumental (for example, as Education for Sustainable Development, Education for Citizenship, or Education for Sustainability). Writing from an ecocentric perspective, Kopnina defends the instrumentalism of EE, but she also argues that it must keep this in balance with the original purpose for which it was designed: to foster an environmental ethics in learners that promotes ecological justice. One major, and necessary, way that this instrumentalism is being worked out in contemporary classrooms is through preparing learners to respond to the ethical and emotional challenges of living with climate change. As climate change and climate justice become key foci in EE, Mochizuki and Bryan 2015 argues that Climate Change Education (CCE) should be addressed in the context of existing Education for Sustainable Development frameworks (see Agenda 21 [United Nations Conference on Environment and Development 1992] and related policy documents cited under Policy Background). The authors argue that anchoring CCE in these frameworks allows for a more holistic and socially critical approach to CCE, which is not limited to classroom learning and which draws on scientific, place-based, and indigenous knowledge to address climate change as an issue of shared but unequal vulnerabilities. Stevenson, et al. 2017 argues that CCE is about learning in the face of risk, uncertainty, and rapid change and thus educators should encourage co-learning, collective problem solving, and action. While this is challenging not only conceptually but also emotionally, the authors reference a growing body of research that argues that CCE can help students to overcome feelings of distress, hopelessness, and fear prompted by climate change when it is delivered in participatory, action-oriented ways. Together, the articles presented here offer insights into the range of theoretical and pedagogic approaches that characterize EE research and practice, the tensions and debates that circulate around the fundamental purpose of EE, and EE’s increasing focus on responding to climate change.

  • Gough, Annette. “The Emergence of Environmental Education Research: A ‘History’ of the Field.” In International Handbook of Research on Environmental Education. Edited by Robert B. Stevenson, Michael Brody, Justin Dillon, and Arjen E. J. Wals, 13–22. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    Gough’s genealogical review traces the emergence of environmental education (EE) as a distinct field of pedagogic practice, policy governance, and educational research. Her review focuses on the latter, considering how approaches to researching EE have moved from largely positivist—using behavior change models to assess EE’s efficacy—to a more diverse field, incorporating a broader range of social science methodologies, including interpretivist, post-structuralist, and feminist approaches.

  • Kopnina, Helen. “Education for Sustainable Development: The Turn Away from ‘Environment’ in Environmental Education?” Environmental Education Research 18.5 (2012): 699–717.

    DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2012.658028

    Kopnina makes distinctive arguments relating to the purpose of EE and presents these in relation to contemporary scholarship and EE’s historical formulation, making this a useful overview of ongoing EE developments and debates. Kopnina’s core arguments are that the environmental focus of EE is being lost amid a growing plurality of purpose and tendency toward anthropocentrism, and that recent, liberal scholarship has encouraged this plurality.

  • Mochizuki, Yoko, and Audrey Bryan. “Climate Change Education in the Context of Education for Sustainable Development: Rationale and Principles.” Journal of Education for Sustainable Development 9.1 (2015): 4–26.

    DOI: 10.1177/0973408215569109

    This article, included in a special section to mark the end of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD), considers how the ESD pedagogic framework can provide a foundation for Climate Change Education. The resulting framework, Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development, is structured around three organizing principles: ensuring an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to knowledge about climate change, addressing local and global perspectives, and centering climate justice.

  • Stevenson, Robert B., Jennifer Nicholls, and Hilary Whitehouse. “What Is Climate Change Education?” Curriculum Perspectives 37.3 (2017): 67–71.

    DOI: 10.1007/s41297-017-0015-9

    Incorporating insights from pedagogic practice in Australia, this short article reviews challenges and opportunities for educators across disciplines to use their teaching to prepare students for living with climate change. The authors present climate change as “a complex social as well as scientific issue characterized by uncertain and context-specific knowledge,” and they argue that educators must adopt a stance of co-learning with students while critically assessing and drawing on available resources.

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