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Environmental awareness develops at an early age

, a researcher at the in Bilbao (UPV/EHU-University of the ) has studied the capacity to differentiate between living and non-living beings and how this relates to .

118 girls and boys between the ages of 4 and 7 from public primary schools in Plentzia, Urduliz and Sopelana participated in the research and were interviewed by himself. He himself says that the work was very laborious, “but enjoyable and what is more, the results were very striking.”

Each interview consisted of two parts. The aim of the first was to analyse the capacity of the children to differentiate between living beings and inanimate objects. The children were shown eight photos, of which four were close-ups of living beings (a dog, a bird, a tree and a flower); the other four depicted inanimate objects: the sun, clouds, a car and a motorbike. “When each of the photos was shown to them, they were asked what they could see: a living being or an inanimate object.”

The images used in the second part of the interview depicted inappropriate behaviour types and they had all been selected from children’s books. These examples of bad behaviour could be classified into three groups: the ones that exert a negative effect on the wellbeing of someone else (taking away someone else’s possessions or using violence against one’s friends); the ones that do not fit in with social rules (picking one’s nose or eating in a messy way); and the ones that harm plants (treading on a flower or carving drawings on a tree trunk using a knife).

Villarroel explains that “in the interview the children were presented with a dilemma; in other words, they were shown two examples of bad behaviour, and they had to choose which of the two was worse. They were presented with two kinds of dilemmas: in one they had to choose between breaking social rules or influencing the wellbeing of others; in the other, to break social rules or harm plants”.

Moral thinking and the world of emotions

The researcher felt that the results of the work were interesting. “In the first part the responses were the expected ones. In fact, many children, especially young ones, are not capable of differentiating between living beings and non-living ones; for example, they find it very difficult to understand that a tree is a living being, yet they tend to believe that cars and motorbikes are alive,” explains Villarroel. Children appear to relate the fact of being alive with movement.

In the second part, he found the results more striking, because he spotted a ‘paradox’. Apparently, children believe that hurting another child or plants is more reprehensible that breaking social rules, “also in the cases in which they think that plants are not living beings.” In other words, they are not absolutely sure whether the flower is a living thing; but they think it is much worse to tread on a flower than to slurp your soup or stick your fingers up your nose.”

According to Villarroel, that paradox suggests that the awareness towards others is developed at an early age and that the development of moral thought is linked to the affective world, in other words, with what they receive from their parents and educators, and not so much through logic or rationality. “In fact, there are two main approaches that seek to explain the development of moral thought: some believe that it has to do with logical capacity; whereas others link it to the emotions and the affective world. The results I got reinforce the second approach,” says Villarroel.

The research has been published in the scientific journal SpringerPlus, under the title “Environmental judgment in early childhood and its relationship with the understanding of the concept of living beings”. And Villarroel has announced that he will be pursuing his research in the same direction: “Firstly I am very interested in finding out how children develop environmental awareness through their parents. And secondly, I would like to conduct the same research in other contexts, and also by comparing children from large and small populations, for example.” He is also planning to publish another article on the same line of research in the specialised journal Journal of Biological Education.


José (Barakaldo, Basque Country, 1967) is a PhD holder in Biology. For several years he was a teacher of science and mathematics in Statutory Secondary Education. He currently lectures and researches at the Teacher Training College in Bilbao (UPV/EHU), in the Department of the Didactics of Mathematics and Experimental Sciences. He has had various scientific papers and books published; most of them deal with the comprehension and learning processes of basic scientific concepts.

Elhuyar Fundazioa