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
  • 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 MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • 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. A number of 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) and held across the ensuing decades under the governance of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These conferences have secured the positioning of EE as a policy tool within the architecture of global environmental governance, most notably through the current UNESCO-led “Education for Sustainable Development” (ESD) framework. Such “top down” attempts to formalize EE have been the subject of much debate and attention in EE research, and resulting policy framings have provided a backdrop to pedagogic practice. Nonetheless, pedagogic practices of teaching in and about “the environment” predate top-down formalization in national and global contexts and are likely to be much more diverse than published EE research 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 plurality of practice and, particularly, the environmental and educational concerns of lesser published contexts. Reviews—often critical—of top-down EE initiatives in the many EE policy commentaries published in recent years may also give the impression that such 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 as a transdisciplinary concern into the demands of national curricula or university courses. In spite of 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.

General Overviews

The following publications provide overviews of the emergence and formalization of environmental education (EE), as well as its subsequent diversification and the future directions anticipated by this plurality. 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. The diverse “channels” that make up EE are also detailed in Lucie Sauvé’s typology of EE (Sauvé 2005), illustrated with examples from Anglophone, Francophone, and Latin American contexts. These “channels”—which, as Sauvé notes, are not mutually exclusive—exemplify the range of understandings of and interests in “the” environment that motivate environmental educators, including environment as habitat, economic resource, source of spiritual inspiration, or “problem” to be solved. Kopnina 2012 also describes the plurality of approaches in contemporary EE and reviews trends among liberal education scholars 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 overtly ecocentric perspective, Kopnina defends the instrumentalism of EE, but also argues that it must return to the original purpose for which it was designed: to foster an environmental ethics in learners that promotes ecological justice. Together, the three articles presented here offer valuable insights into the range of theoretical and pedagogic approaches that characterize contemporary EE research and practice, as well as the tensions and debates that circulate around the competing ideas of the fundamental purpose of EE.

  • 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.

  • Sauvé, Lucie. “Currents in Environmental Education: Mapping a Complex and Evolving Pedagogical Field.” Canadian Journal of Environmental Education 10 (2005): 11–37.

    Sauvé maps fifteen “currents” in environmental education (EE)—ways of envisioning and practicing EE that flow from distinct understandings of environment and education. The article charts the historical emergence of such currents since the 1970s, and describes their main characteristics. As Sauvé points out, many contemporary EE approaches draw on two or more currents.

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