Some of the Nature Net readership might know that I’ve spent the last couple months as a part time graduate student at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Human Ecology. The program, Civil Society & Community Research, is designed to encourage scholars to look at communities as human-centered yet ecological. That is, our civil societies, just like ecological systems, are rich in diversity, interconnections, and interdependencies. Just as you pull on one strand of the web in an ecological system to witness the rest of the web respond, so too with societal systems where change happens because of actions and interactions between people, organizations, communities, and culture. 

Based on the learning and thinking I have been doing, I would like to take the liberty of shifting this issue of Nature Net News to a slightly more scholarly tone. As graduate students we are asked to dive into others’ research and create our own hypotheses. In this article I aim to build a case for change in environmental education approaches based on empirical research. As such, the links I provide will not be to the usual established and known websites but rather to the research articles that substantiate the story. 

This creates a small problem that, turns out, is part of a larger issue – one that could take its own dedicated post. The links I provide will most likely take you to the research article abstract but not the whole work of the researcher. The methods they used or the thinking behind the conclusions they came to will not be easily accessible. You will be told that information is not available unless you subscribe to the journal in which the article is published or you pay a fairly hefty fee (sometimes as much as $49 per article). The bigger issue here is the disconnect between the research world and the world of those doing the work in the field, the so-called “practitioners.” The Children & Nature Network is working to address this matter in the field of environmental education by creating a research library that is searchable and accessible to all. They, like me, believe that if practitioners are to build a case for their work, ask policy-makers for support, or prove to funders that their work is worthy of investment, easy access to data that proves their case is critical. 

That matter aside, here is the issue I want to address: fighting climate change and tackling other environmental degradations requires that people act to protect the planet we live on. This needs to be done with everyone’s help, meaning the traditional environmentalist (read: a person who is most likely middle class and white) is not enough; we need the depth and diversity of our civil society to take part in this endeavor. This is especially critical given that people of color and of lower socio-economic status tend to be more negatively impacted by environmental degradation. Additionally, I want to take this theory a step further to address the idea that today’s youth play an essential role. Many contend it’s the next generation that will save us from our industrial, polluting selves. But how will we get them to care? And more importantly, to act? Researchers have a few ideas and I’ll lay them out below. 

But first, I need to start with a few assumptions: 

  1. Majority Minority – According to census projections, by the year 2045 the US will become a majority minority population. That is, Caucasians will make up less than 50% of the population. So, the assumption here is: if we engage and activate the youth of today, we inherently mobilize a diverse and richly varied civil society. It is this diverse population that is so critical to the environmental movement. We need more than the white middle class to care and act.
  2. Civic Action – Given the current national and global structures under which we function (often referred to as “the system”), one of the most impactful ways youth can create change is to become civically engaged. This means they register to vote, participate in elections, join political parties, campaign or protest, or participate in community service. Maybe they speak out and ask others to join, they write to their legislators, or they show up at local council meetings. Whatever form this takes, the assumption is: if youth leverage the power they have to fight for change in the system – in this case a system that validates and monefies anti-environmental activities – they can make a difference.
  3. Civic Identity & Community Connection – Becoming civically engaged requires some groundwork. This is largely the case that I build below but essentially the assumption is: if youth are given the opportunity to create their own civic identity and develop a connection to their community, they are going to become civically engaged and do all the things listed in the assumption above.

On to our researchers. This is what I’m calling “Four Ways to Encourage the Next Generation of Environmentalists” but really it’s empirically-based methods we can employ in order to foster in youth the desire to be civically minded and prepared to act on behalf of the environment. 

1. Encourage youth to participate in volunteer work 

A pair of UW-Madison sociologists, Jane Allyn Piliavin and Erica Siegel, sifted through dozens of research papers related to the impact of volunteerism to summarize the overall findings. They weren’t looking to see how the organization that received the “free labor” succeeded or not, but rather at how the health and well-being of volunteers was impacted by their efforts. They outline the outcomes for people of all ages (spoiler alert: we all should be volunteering) but regarding youth specifically, they found that “teenage volunteers develop positive habits of social responsibility and are more likely to be engaged in their communities as adults.” 

More specifically, Piliavin and Siegel note that highly impactful volunteer programs (1) include direct contact with who is being helped (i.e. working in a soup kitchen vs doing clerical work for a local nonprofit), (2) encourage youth autonomy and (3) strengthen ties to the community. Additionally, they note that the jury is out on whether making volunteer work required is helpful or not, and they suggest that funding for youth volunteerism is critical, particularly since lower-income youth may not have the same ability to participate. 

So, here’s what environmental educators can do: offer hands-on volunteer opportunities for youth that foster a relationship with the land and connect them with their local parks, nature centers, and natural areas. This work is not only good for their wellbeing but it also encourages a sense of social responsibility to community nature centers. 

2. Offer club and extracurricular activities that are civically focused 

Stanford University researchers Daniel McFarland and Reuben Thomas found in their 2006 study that youth who took part in activities like drama club, student council, or service organizations were more likely to develop an interest in political systems. And importantly, this interest carried through to adulthood. The particular activities stood out because they entailed public speaking, debate, community service or community “rituals.” McFarland and Reuben cite past research that indicates that the most likely path to civic activity like voting, for example, is to have parents who vote. So, the fact that there is another pathway to civic engagement – that is, participation in certain extracurricular activities – is meaningful particularly for youth who come from families (i.e. immigrant families) who may not vote.  

Similarly, Veronica Terriquez from the University of Southern California compares today’s youth activist groups with the civil rights movement from the 60s in that being involved in an activist group tends to “propel some young people toward ongoing engagement with social movements.” Importantly, Terriquez distinguishes between youth clubs that do not require much public interaction or debate (i.e. French club or computer club), and those that do (i.e. student government or service-orientated clubs). She finds that organized youth groups that address social concerns and employ political processes foster ongoing civic and political participation. This is true even if the focus of the club is not explicitly political. Also of import, Terriquez notes that youth organizing groups often attract (or recruit) urban youth from low-income, racially diverse, and immigrant backgrounds.  

Taken together, these studies frame a case for environmental educators to build into their curricula the opportunity for youth to participate in debates, speak or correspond with public officials, and give time to community service (and here I’m picturing things like conservation work, trail maintenance, joining the prescribed fire crew, gardening, or species monitoring). This ties the positive wellbeing that volunteerism offers with political action skills-building, and it creates in youth an interest in political systems that ideally continues into adulthood. 

3. Provide opportunities for stewardship & work for the common good

In 2016, a team of Human Ecologists at the University of Wisconsin, including Constance Flanagan, Rachel Byington, Erin Gallay, and Allison Sambo published a chapter in “Equity and Justice in Developmental Science: Implications for Young People, Families, and Communities.” In addition to a robust discussion on “the environmental commons” (the natural resources we all need and the public spaces where we gather to negotiate their use and care), the author-researcher team points out that engaging youth in environmental stewardship is beneficial on multiple levels. They contend that if youth embark in environmental work that directly impacts their own communities, they tend to:

    • Have an increased awareness of human impact (both positive and negative) on the environment 
    • Build a critical consciousness and move toward action – critical consciousness is considered the way in which people critically examine society and societal systems, particularly those related to oppression, and imagine or act on solutions to those problems 
    • Question the status quo – which “requires a capacity to see alternative perspectives to the way things are and to critique the system in light of those other possibilities”
    • Understand the need to act together to solve problems
    • Realize they cannot assume the government will take care of things

In a similar vein, Ben Kirshner, from the University of Colorado, found that teens who participated in youth organizing (that is, programs that train youth to engage in collective action to impact their community and circumstances) tended to shift from a perspective of “what can I do” to “what can we do together.” This “collective agency” fosters an understanding that social problems, although often experienced at an individual level, are linked to broader societal forces. And it leads youth to believe individuals can and should join together to work for a common good. 

Environmental educators have long touted the positive impact of place-based learning and these studies confirm that encouraging youth to connect with the environment through projects aimed at making a difference in their community (i.e. projects that work to mitigate a local environmental harm like shoreline erosion, runoff and flooding, or litter, for example) builds critical consciousness. Youth come to understand that they are capable of recognizing societal (in this case environmental) wrongs, and that, working together, they can do something about it.   

4. Do all this with cultural humility

In her 2011 work, Margaret Beale Spencer from the University of Chicago, contends that certain youth may reject an American identity because during the tender years of adolescence, when they are forming their own identities and belief systems, they recognize that the ideals of equality and justice are not experienced the same by all Americans. For example, she notes, “justice and fairness mean something very different to those who fear the justice system than it does to those who see it as a source of protection and support.” 

Spencer contends that the varied and disparate contexts within which American youth grow up (based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, national origin, and socio-economic status) is often ignored during their educational experience. This lack of meaningful dialogue around different experiences leads to a stereotyping of “vulnerable” versus “privileged” youth. Injustices and inequalities are not acknowledged as American social truths and this void undermines beliefs of fairness and compromises the development of an American identity. 

But Spencer also offers a solution. She suggests that “rather than perpetuating this distorted picture of vulnerability and privilege, our goal should be to help young people to understand who they are, what their resources are, how historical forces have contributed to their lives, and what they can offer society as agents of change, promoters of social justice, and salient sources of diverse strengths.” She believes that youth can see themselves (and the experiences they bring with them) as contributors to a fair and just community; they can develop an “attachment to country” and become civic actors. And, Spencer continues, we adults (teachers, parents, leaders) must play a role in this process. 

She notes these key steps for educators: 

      • Acknowledge the different experiences youth live 
      • Use this information to help them build an identity as “competent and valued civic participants” 
      • Recognize and discuss our history as a nation (and the disproportionate injustices carried by some) 
      • Undo our own distorted images of an idealized America
      • Confront our own histories and contributions to the status quo

Here environmental educators can begin by understanding the history of the environmental movement and its strong footing in white colonialism and the “conquering” of nature. They can acknowledge this history, talk about it with youth, and invite them to share their own varied and unique experiences with nature. Environmental educators can validate “youth voice” and examine their own power, privilege, and position in this world. And, to be clear, I count myself among those who need to take these steps to acknowledge what being white and middle-class means in today’s environmental movement and think about how my privilege can be put to work to change the trajectory. 

Thank you for taking this scholarly journey with me and allowing for a bit of academia to seep into this forum; for putting just a toe into the water of the research world. Uniting the researcher and the “practitioner” has a ways to go. But, if we can heed a bit of sociological or human understanding in our efforts to build a civil society of young people who are (1) connected to their communities, (2) feel comfortable with the ins and outs of political action, and (3) enjoy opportunities to work on and impact the environmental issues in their own neighborhoods, all while hearing their voices and practicing our own cultural humility, we will get there. We can encourage the next generation of environmentalists.

Featured Events

Sign Up For Monthly Posts

For Educators:

COVID-19 Resources 

It would seem a bit tone deaf if in this spring of 2020 Nature Net News I did not mention the global pandemic we’re all living through. As we’re all finding new and creative ways to cope with hunkering down at home while keeping learning and education meaningful and rigorous, we also have our own mental and physical health to contend with. With this in mind, Nature Net has created a brand new set of resource pages on These pages are designed to bring all the best websites and up-to-date information together in one thoughtfully curated place. Topics include:

  • Nature Net trails that remain open – getting out into nature is critical for our health and wellbeing; find out where you can go
  • Parenting & Teaching from home – digital educational resources from Nature Net sites and other nature centers in Wisconsin
  • COVID-19 Information – reliable, vetted web resources related to COVID-19, including information on zoonotic diseases and how to talk to young people about the virus
  • Staying sane while staying safer at home – virtual learning tips and quick links to mental health resources
  • Social determinants of health – there’s a bigger story to this pandemic and the ways in which certain populations are more negatively impacted – learn the basics of social determinants of health and the role nature (and access to nature) plays in keeping all people healthy

One more note: the Nature Net Calendar of Events has a new virtual event category to keep you updated on events, webinars, on-line challenges, and storytime readings with your favorite Nature Net educators.

For Families:

Nature Passport 

This year’s Nature Passport is still on! Use your Nature Passport to explore and learn at Nature Net sites that remain open and in your own backyard or neighborhood. We weren’t about to let Earth Day’s 50th birthday go by without a celebration! This year’s Nature Passport marks the milestone by inviting you and your family to think about the ways clean air, water, and soil are so important to us and our life here on planet Earth.

NEW This Year! Because of limited distribution of the classic version of the Nature Passport, we’ve created a new, Mini-Print-At-Home Nature Passport. Just print, fold and text! Text a special keyword to Nature Net to receive unique missions you can do in your own backyard or at several of the open Nature Net sites. Parents can mark off completed challenges and children can celebrate completing the missions and their connection to nature.

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator and Director of Nature Net.
She is a strong believer in the power of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog
is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.