Kindergarten must cultivate children’s stewardship of nature

Children are interested in nature and sustainable development. 'We should start with what fascinates children, like birds, insects and frogs, rather than starting with the big issues', recommends researcher Cecilia Caiman.



The world faces major challenges in terms of its biodiversity. Currently, natural species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. Man-made change is the main reason.

‘To stop this trend, those growing up today must be engaged in and learn about nature’, declares Caiman.

Kindergartens play an important part

She believes that children are interested in this issue. Consequently, kindergartens play an important part in instilling a healthy attitude in children in order to promote a more sustainable future.

‘Unless we encourage children to take a creative approach to these big issues, we’ll never be able to stop this trend. Knowledge about nature is fundamental for accomplishing this’, remarks the researcher.

Children’s way of getting engaged in nature is primarily a question of taking a positive interest in the organisms that are close at hand.

Start with what is close by

Children’s way of getting engaged in nature is primarily a question of taking a positive interest in the organisms that are close at hand, according to a study Caiman conducted in a Swedish kindergarten.

‘As adults, when we get involved in questions concerning sustainable development, we often approach them with a degree of pessimism. I don’t think it’s prudent to start with the big issues for children. We should start with the things that fascinate them, like birds, insects and frogs. It is crucial that we not deprive children of their childhood and faith in the future. Meanwhile, the children live in a global world and can be engaged at many levels, also on the big issues’, remarks Caiman.

Studying how children learn

The researcher investigated what characterises the processes through which children study science, and how early childhood educators can encourage them.

She made video observations of 20 five-year-olds and three kindergarten teachers. In addition, she used photographs, children’s drawings and pedagogical documentation collected by the staff.

“Hoppy the Frog”

The study takes its point of departure in a kindergarten that is working on a biodiversity project. The goal was for the children to discover the connection between organisms and their habitats. To render the processes transparent, the teachers compiled pedagogical documentation.

For several weeks, the children in the preschool unit that Caiman studied had observed “Hoppy the Frog” in a terrarium. They fed the frog and cared for it, all the while examining it closely. They made numerous drawings of the frog and consulted different books about amphibians while working on their project.

Where are the frog’s teeth?

One morning, five-year-old Lina was sitting with a photo of the frog and a drawing of the human body in front of her.

‘Where are the teeth?’ asks Lina. The teacher shows her where the teeth are on the drawing of the human body, then asks: ‘What about the frog, then?’

Little Helmer examines the photo of the frog and says: ‘Frogs don’t have teeth, do they? … Instead, frogs have a kind of poison in their mouth that they can use.’ Lina responds right away: ‘No, not exactly… they have teeth, too, like us, and they chew… and they have tongues.’ Whereupon Johan chimes in loudly: ‘Frogs’ tongues can get super long! They can just stick them out and capture…’. Helmer laughs and replies: ‘And they have poison in their tongues…’. The children’s way of creating meaning is characterised by finding similarities and differences between humans and frogs. After that, they describe the frog’s physiology, how it unfurls its tongue to catch its prey, how it uses its teeth to chew, and how the poison in the frog’s tongue can be used.

The adults must be active listeners

Caiman recognises that children’s investigations are reminiscent of how biologists work to systematise nature. First, the children focus on shape, appearance and movements. Then they move on to pondering the more complex correlations in nature.

Caiman postulates that kindergarten staff play an important part in these processes.

First, they must offer the children exciting settings, indoors and outdoors alike. If the kindergarten is lucky enough to be surrounded by nature, that is best, of course. Then the teachers can take their point of departure in the cobweb on the blueberries, or the insects in the puddle, for example. Meanwhile, a growing number of kindergartens are located in urban settings. That leads to a more demanding situation for the employees, since it means that they have to set up an indoor environment that enables the children to explore nature.

The study shows that the kindergarten staff has a crucial, albeit less prominent part to play when children investigate. The adults should listen actively and ask good questions about what the children see and talk about. This allows the focus to remain on the child, without the adults taking over.

Children take a holistic approach

After Johan, Lina, Helmer and the other children finished examining the frog’s physiology and movements, they start telling each other about how frogs hunt for food. They talk about how they hop, swim and move around, and about which prey they hunt, e.g. mosquitoes, fish or flies. The frog’s anatomy, appearance and behaviour still occupy a central position in the story, but now it had been expanded to also include ecology, that is, how frogs live in their natural habitat.

The children spent nearly two weeks working on a collage they made together. There were drawings of the frog capturing a fly, and of a bird looking down on a woodlouse with what the children called “spy eyes”.

Lina points to the bird’s beak and says: ‘It’s the beak that’s dangerous, it grabs the woodlice. They have to run into the grass quickly, but the smallest didn’t make it.’ Then she points to the bird’s stomach, where the children had drawn a woodlouse, and says: ‘It’s dead.’ Helmer says: ‘But, the babies get away … Maybe they run behind a rock and hide.’ 

Finding links in the ecosystem

Helmer, age five, continues talking about the ecology surrounding the escape of the woodlice. He envisages a relationship between the baby bugs’ need to escape and the surrounding environment, in this case, a protective rock. The children, with a bit of help from the teachers, gradually shift the perspective from the predator’s situation to the prey’s need for escape and protection.

Several bonds are forged in the ecosystem. The animal, the environment and the grass are important elements. Then the children conjure up a stone to add to the story so that the woodlice babies survive. Life finds a new path through the ecosystem.