SDSU researcher receives NSF grant to study Alaskan children’s interactions with nature


The experiences children have at a young age help form their identity and relationships with the natural world — and where they grow up impacts that environmental identity and sense of place, according to Carie Green, associate professor at the South Dakota State University.

She examines how family, culture and geographic location shape how children form their environmental identity through a five-year National Science Foundation CAREER grant she received in 2018 while at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Green, who is the Profilet and DeJong Family Director of Early Childhood Education for the School of Education, Counseling and Human Development, arrived at SDSU in the fall of 2021.

“We have the romantic idea that if we send the kids out, the world will be a better place,” said Green, who studied early childhood relationships while earning her doctorate in 2011 from the University of Wyoming. Her 2018 book, “Children’s Environmental Identity Development,” describes a model of environmental identity development that considers not only how the natural environment affects the growth and development of young children, but also how children shape and influence natural environments.

She conducted later studies suggesting that children’s relationships with nature are more complex. “What I started to see were big differences in how kids connected (to nature) based on their backgrounds, cultures, and experiences,” Green said. Her NSF study is the first of its kind to explore — from the perspective of children — how they learn to regulate their emotions when exploring nature.

Specifically, she compares children living in two different areas of Alaska: Fairbanks, which has a population of approximately 100,000, and an isolated village of approximately 700 residents, the majority of whom are Alaska Natives, located near the Bering Sea.

It’s important that we pay attention to those early formative years where they begin to orient themselves towards the environment.”

Carie Green, Associate Professor, South Dakota State University

What she will learn will provide insight into how early childhood educators can encourage deeper connections to place and an awareness of how their actions affect all of life.

Development follow-up

First, Green used a family survey to understand the different experiences that rural and non-rural children had while in nature. She also asked the children to draw pictures and describe them to learn more about their favorite outdoor activities.

One of the unique aspects of the study involves the children taking turns using a wearable camera that records their interactions with classmates, teachers, and even family members during a nature visit. She and her research team observe each cohort of 20 children first at ages 4 and 5, then at ages 7 and 8 in the fall and spring to follow their development. Detailed information on the project is available at

The first observations of the Bering Sea cohort took place in the fall of 2019; however, the Spring 20202 tour has unfortunately been canceled due to COVID. The research team is due to see the village children again in fall 2022 and spring 2023, when the children will be in second grade. The only way to get to the village is by plane or dog sled in winter or boat in summer.

“Overall, there was more fear among the Fairbanks children compared to the Bering Sea cohort,” Green said. During their nature explorations, several students negotiated their fear by staying close to classmates or using self-talk, while another youngster howled like a wolf, negotiating the fear by making themselves feel bigger. and stronger.

“Although the children growing up in the Bering Sea Village are not immune to video games, most are outdoors as soon as they can walk and their families are largely dependent on the environment for their survival,” she said.

Based on observing the Bering Sea group as preschoolers, Green noticed how attuned the children are to their surroundings. During the outing, an Alaska Native child standing on the rocks near the coast recounted seeing a moose at the edge of a cliff about a mile away, even identifying it as a female cow, she recalls. The parent also saw the moose and confirmed the sighting of the child.

“I watched the video 20 times and could never spot the moose. That depth of discernment is amazing to me,” Green said. She attributes this not only to the hours they spend outdoors, but also to the importance of the moose to the community. “Everyone plays a role during (the fall) moose season, with the men mostly hunting and the women preparing the meat. It’s part of their livelihood, who they are.”

Furthermore, she noted, “Although they (the children) may not know the scientific name of a bird, for example, they are so aware of the time and the seasons. These children can tell us learn some truly powerful lessons.”

Learn from indigenous cultures

Encouraging children to be good stewards of the environment may require adjusting “what we value and believe to be meaningful experiences for children” and incorporating Indigenous cultural understanding into early childhood education standards , Green said.

“The way children begin to inform about how they live in a place, how they see the place and their connection to the land teaches us to connect with each other in deeper ways and makes us aware of the impact of our actions not only on the environment but also on each other,” she continued.

“We can all learn from how Indigenous people connect to their places, and early childhood is the prime place to do that,” Green said. “This is an opportunity to listen to people whose voices are often marginalized. We need to work together as humans to make the right choices as we see global warming and all kinds of things happening that will take effort. united collective.”

As a researcher and teacher, she concludes, “I can start by encouraging my early childhood education students to pay attention to ways of knowing with which they may be unfamiliar.”


Journal reference:

Lunda(Koogak’aax), A & Green, C., (2020) Harvesting Good Medicine: Internalizing and Crystallizing Core Cultural Values ​​in Young Children. Ecopsychology.


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