Children's Health

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 South Dakota State University associate professor Carie Green.

She is examining how family, culture and geographical location shape the way in which children form their environmental identities 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 Endowed Director of Early Childhood Education for the School of Education, Counseling and Human Development, came to SDSU in fall 2021.

“We have the romanticized notion that if we send kids outdoors, the world will be a better place,” said Green, who studied children’s early place connections while earning her doctorate in 2011 at the University of Wyoming. Her 2018 book, “Children’s Environmental Identity Development,” outlines a model of environmental identity development which considers not only how the natural environment affects the growth and development of young children but also how children shape and influence natural settings.

She has conducted subsequent studies suggesting children’s relationships with nature are more complex. “What I started to see is vast differences in how children were connecting (to nature) depending on their background, culture and experiences,” Green said. Her NSF study is the first of its kind to explore-;from the children’s point of view-;how they learn to regulate their emotions when exploring nature.

Specifically, she is comparing children living in two different regions in Alaska-;Fairbanks, which has about 100,000 people, and an isolated village with around 700 inhabitants, a majority of whom are Alaskan Native, that is near the Bering Sea.

It is important that we pay attention to these early formative years where they begin to orient themselves toward the environment.”

Carie Green, Associate Professor, South Dakota State University

What she learns will provide insight on how early childhood educators can encourage deeper connections with place and an awareness about how their actions affect all life.

Tracking development

First, Green used a family survey to understand the different experiences that rural and nonrural children had when in the wilderness. She also had the children draw pictures and describe them to learn 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 their classmates, teachers and even family members during a nature tour. She and her research team observe each cohort of 20 children first as 4- and 5-year-olds and then as 7- and 8-year-olds in the fall and spring to track their development. Detailed information on the project is available at

The initial observations of the Bering Sea cohort took place in fall 2019; however, the spring 20202 visit was unfortunately canceled due to COVID. The research team is scheduled to revisit the village children in fall 2022 and spring 2023 when the children are in the second grade. The only way to get to the village is airplane or dogsled in the wintertime or boat in the summertime.

“Overall, there was more fear demonstrated with the Fairbanks children in comparison with the Bering Sea Cohort,” Green said. During their nature explorations, several students negotiated their fear by staying close to their classmates or using self-talk, while another youngster howled like a wolf, negotiating the fear by making himself feel bigger and tougher.

“Though the children growing up in the Bering Sea village are not immune to video games, most are outdoors from the time they can walk and their families depend largely on the environment for survival,” she said.

Based on observing the Bering Sea group as preschoolers, Green noticed how attune the children are to their environment. During the outing, a Native Alaskan child standing on the rocks next to the coast talked about seeing a moose on the edge of a bluff about a mile away, even identifying it as a female cow, she recalled. The parent also saw the moose and confirmed the child’s observation.

“I’ve looked at the video 20 times and never been able to spot the moose. This 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 moose to the community. “Everyone plays a role during (the fall) moose season, with the men predominantly doing the hunting and the women preparing the meat. This is part of their livelihood, of who they are.”

Furthermore, she noted, “Though they (the children) may not know the scientific name for a bird, for instance, they are so aware of timing and seasons. These kids can teach us some really powerful lessons.”

Learning from Indigenous cultures

Encouraging children to become good environmental stewards may require adjusting “what we value and think are meaningful experiences for kids” and integrating Indigenous cultural understanding into early childhood education standards, Green said.

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

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

As a researcher and teacher, she concluded, “I can begin by encouraging my students in early childhood education to pay attention to ways of knowing with which they may not be familiar.”

Journal reference:

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

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