Sue Dale Tunnicliffe, University College London, writes about environmental science in the early years.


Science is all around, an integral part of our world. Young children are intuitive scientists (Gopnik, 2009).  They observe, ask questions, investigate, collect data and work out what it means, forming an understanding, which is their basis for understanding their world. This develops into children’s science, as their ideas and interpretations are in fact common to most children. This science is blended with school science once they enter formal education, which may ultimately become scientist science, (Osborne, Bell and Gilbert, 1983).  Moreover, children develop narratives about their observations and activities (Bruner 2002) as well as interpreting what they notice and find out, often justifying their interpretation and decisions; in es-sence, intuitively using the scientific process.


Children are born into this world into place and environment, and immediately start developing a personal ‘sense of place’.  The first place is their home, and gradually the immediate outside becomes part of their environmental experience and understanding.  Places have an identity.  For people it is created not only by the visual landscape but also by invisible history, features and happenings from the past which have occurred in the sense location.  Watts (1998) considered awareness of the past of a place to be one of the strongest aspects of the sense of the countryside, and the concept can be extrapolated to buildings, such as cathedrals.   Early Years specialists consider the physical and emotional environment for children less than three years of age.  Bradford (2012) was concerned with the developing child and understanding an appropriate environment. These two aspects are intertwined.

Science is environmental education 

Environmental education, however, tends to focus on the physical environments that a child encounters and to which they can be introduced by educators and family, to extend their experiences of ‘place’ and the varying environments that these places contain.

I understand ‘nature’ to mean ‘the environment’, in which most people think there is ‘nature’.  It is postulated nowadays that children are out of touch with nature. Louv (2008) refers to ‘nature deficit’ amongst these ‘digitised ‘children, exposed to technology but not the untamed outside.

However, even though urban children from an urban-focused society may have scant experience of wilderness, they have interactions with fauna, flora and earth science in varying amounts, depend-ing on what is found in ‘their place’ and, vicariously, through media.  The natural environment, locations and components as opposed to the built environment, is often the educational focus for environmental education, but a large part of the environment that our children experience is the one constructed by humans.  Hence the built environ-ment is an important aspect of environmental awareness.  Increasingly the deleterious effect on the environment, where our species has destroyed or otherwise changed the landscape, our place, has led to our era in our world being named the ‘Anthropogenic’ era (The Guardian, accessed 14.1.17).  Some remedial actions are being taken such as recycling, with many schools and commu-nities becoming involved.

The environment’s constituents 

The environment is the result of earth science in action in the past and present.  The soil, landscape, differing biomes, vegetation and habitats and their incumbents as well as the climate and weather effects such as typhoons, monsoons and droughts, are all aspects of the environment.  Yet much literature on environmental science emphasises the biological, not the physical or earth sciences.

Young children experience the physical outside world but do not remark upon it in their early vocabulary, rich in nouns and some action words, such as ‘dig’, ‘splash’ (Tunnicliffe 2013 page 11).   My eldest son’s first 50 words at the age of two did not contain any words related to the environment per se, such as soil, sky, clouds, but did contain words of objects and actions he had seen in the outside, such as bricks, spade, bus and ‘dig-dig’ (dumper truck).

Yet the natural environment of earth, soil and sky and the built environment on the surface of the Earth are large components of their ‘place’. In 1998, the Japanese early years curriculum environmental area ‘Field of Nature,’ underwent a name change from ‘nature’ to ‘environment’ to include the environment outside, to enable children to ‘observe things ‘objectively and logically’ (Sumida, 2013), including mud. Indeed ‘mud kitchens’ are becoming a common feature of nursery education in England.

Other educators introduce nature journeys focusing on nature and living organisms and not on the earth science components which are essential for the emergence of habitats.  Environmental educa-tion is more than nature education and provides real experiences for emergent scientists, starting with their immediate surroundings.  Earth science awareness develops in children from their experiences and direct observations but, unless highlighted by a facilitator, can become part of the background of ‘place’.  Children observe and think about their environment, natural occurrences – e.g. sunrise, sunset, day and night (dark and light) beyond our planet into space, other worlds.

Children observe changes; in my experience the sky and clouds catch the attention of the emerging environmentalist as do weather patterns in their locality. The substrate under their feet is noticed!  Young children have an inherent urge to collect items: pine cones, twigs, pebbles or individual leaves. They are fascinated by wet soil and enjoy when allowed to play in mud creating shapes and structures, particularly a feature of the early years’ experiences facilitated in Japanese kindergartens (Sumida, 2013). However, their attention is divert-ed to plants and towards moving animals.  Indeed there seems an acute ‘earth science blindness’ similar to that noticed by Wandersee and Schussler (1999).  This is exemplified by my son’s vocabulary cited above. He spent much time outside, in his environment, but did not need to name the fundamentals. To him they were there to explore and use, but naming them was unimportant.

Physical science is present in so many actions that children undertake in play. Movement, as exempli-fied by pulling a force over the substrate on which they are moving, pushing stones along, piling them to dam a stream, pulling down a branch, when playing for instance. Young children are intrigued when investigating bodies of water and floating such as sticks. So, too, are actions using a force or mixing solutions, adding water to mud and constructing objects with it. Indeed ‘mud play’ actions involve pushes, pulls, twisting, as well as an element of numeracy.

Children have an understanding of vegetation from their own everyday observations, which contributes to their awareness of their external environment, but gradually adopt an attitude that vegetation is worthless and utilitarian (Schnee-kloth, 1989).  A study eliciting understanding of plants and animals amongst young children in the USA and England (Patrick and Tunnicliffe, 2011) found that the children were in touch with their everyday environment.

My observations of primary school children on visits to botanical and horticultural gardens, is that they are interested in plants until distracted by moving animals.  They may have a much narrower understanding of the word ‘plant’.  A tree, for example, may not be considered a plant.  Early years children (4-year-olds) when interviewed about everyday plants (unpublished data) used the word ‘grass’ as synonymous with a stretch of green lawn and when shown, firstly an individual grass plant from a lawn and secondly a mature grass plant in flower, were amazed.

Animals, in the home or outside, play an important part in a child’s developing understanding of environmental science.  My eldest son’s first words show that names are important to a child.  Observing and categorizing is a basic science skill and the collecting of evidence, for example seeing the same kind of animal but with differences.  One child of my acquaintance pointed to something in the sky and was told ‘plane’, thereafter anything flying in the air was allocated to the category of plane, i.e. things that flew.  She gradually learnt to identify other categories within her super-ordinate category ‘plane’, such as ‘birds’. Gradually she accepted that they both were part of the larger group of things that were in the air above her. Names are learnt gradually, from a category name for all similar things in one dimension, such as all things that fly, which include non-animal instances, such as planes, but also plant parts!

Emerging science 

Formally learning about places, their constituent parts and the effects of humans on the environment, is a key aspect of environmental education and such focused education ‘creates a heightened commitment to serving as active and contributing citizens’ (Sober, 2005, p. 7).

These early observations and experiences of environments may well lead to learners with an interest in science and eventually a career.  An holistic view of the environment by facilitators and planners is crucial in supporting the potential of early learners into developing as scientifically literate beings with a science capital.


Bradford, H (2012). Appropriate Environments for Children Under Three. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bruner, J (2002). Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. London: Harvard UP.

Gopnik, A (2009). The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Louv, R (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Meier, D.R. and Sisk-Hilton, S (editors) (2013). Nature Education with young Children. Abingdon: Routledge.

Osborne, R.J., Bell, B.F. and Gilbert, J.K. (1983). Science teaching and children’s views of the world. European Journal of Science Education, 5, 1- 5. 

Patrick, P and Tunnicliffe, S.D. (2011). What plants and animals do early childhood and primary students name? Where do they see them? Journal of Science Education Technology DOI 10.1007/s10956-011-9290-75.

Schneekloth, L.H. (1989). “Where did you go?” “The forest.” “What did you see?’ “Nothing.” Children’s Environmental Quarterly, 6 (1), 14-17.

Sober, D (2005). Place-based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.

Sumida, M (2013). The Japanese view of nature and its implications for the teaching of science in the early childhood years. In Georgeson, J and Player, J. Early Childhood Education and Care (p241-256). Maidenhead: Open University.

Tunnicliffe, S.D. (2013). Talking and Doing Science in the Early Years. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wandersee, J.H. and Schussler, E. (1999). Preventing plant blindness. The American Biology Teacher Vol. 61, No. 2 (Feb.), pp. 82+84+86.

Watts, K (1998). Exploring Historic Wiltshire. Bradford-on-Avon: Ex Libris Press. The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age. Accessed 14.1.2017.


This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017  journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 115).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

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