At the Well blog


Listening to and learning from children’s voices and experiences in environmental discussions

Illustration from the pedagogical material Riddle of the Spirit.

What experiences and feelings do children have about their living environments? How can we account better for children’s environmental considerations, aspirations and visions for the future? The Enriching Children’s Ecological Imagination (ECHOing) research team investigates children’s relationships with nature and develops pedagogies that can support children’s environmental explorations and reflections. “When we approach children as knowledgeable and active participants in their living environments and create spaces for them to join environmental discussions, we adults can also learn to look at nature and the environment with new perspectives,” the researchers write in their blog post.

Children as environmental actors  

Children grow up and develop in relation to their environments while being actively involved in creating these environments. Despite this, children’s views on nature and the environment are rarely considered in research or public debates. In the Enriching children’s ecological imagination (ECHOing) research group we examine how children define their own relationship with nature, as well as how to support children’s ecological thinking, imagination and appreciating relationship with the environment pedagogically.

We believe that children should be listened to and taken into account more in environmental discussions. Recent research has shown that children wish to be listened to and treated as agentic and accountable environmental actors.

For example, in our study, Silja (8 years old) argued against people throwing rubbish in nature: “Well, I would like to teach others, everyone, not to litter in nature, and that would be a good example for everyone, like …don’t litter in nature…, because it will then get too polluted… For me, plants and all nature are important, and every time I see rubbish somewhere, I will go and look for a bin and throw it in the bin.”

In the ECHOing research group, we invite children to participate in our research as co-researchers. We emphasise the researcher’s responsibility to consider and try to understand children’s experiences and stories about their living environments through interaction and collaboration.

To this end, we use story-based and arts-based practices to discuss with children how humans and their environments are inter-related and how they transform and develop together. We believe that story-based and arts-based pedagogy is a natural way to broaden children’s ecological thinking and imagination. Ecological imagination is the capacity of humans to perceive, in light of opportunities for thinking and acting, the relationships of our living systems, including relationships between humans and other living beings.

Our research has shown that children’s ecological imagination is formed through six intertwined dimensions: sensual, symbolic, emotional, embodied, scientific and moral. The sensual dimension connects to how children experience nature through sensory and aesthetic experiences; the symbolic refers to how children structure nature through symbols and imagination; the emotional points to how children experience nature through emotions; the embodied dimension relates to how children perceive nature through their bodies and physical activity; the scientific refers to how children understand nature through scientific and cultural knowledge; and, lastly, the moral connects to how children structure nature through moral judgments and ethical values.

Altogether, these dimensions holistically encompass the spatial, temporal and material aspects of children’s relationship with their living environments and reveal the importance of imagination and wonder for developing caring and attentive attitudes towards nature.

Our doctoral projects enhancing children’s ecological thinking and imagination

In the ECHOing research group, we study the potential and practical implementations of the pedagogical materials we have developed to enhance children’s ecological thinking and imagination. Our study highlights how arts- and story-based pedagogical methods elevate the physical, sensual and emotional dimensions of learning and understanding.

In her doctoral thesis, Jenny Renlund examines the opportunities for aesthetic nature experiences, collective aesthetic reflection, and arts-based pedagogical methods to strengthen and support children’s appreciation and care for nature. Aesthetic experiences through arts-based methods invite children to approach their living environments from diverse perspectives, promoting children’s multisensory experiencing and awareness of their surroundings. Through aesthetic expression and reflection, children also get the opportunity to share their experiences and thoughts,  thus becoming actively involved in exploring and defining their living environments in interaction with others.  

In her doctoral thesis, Jenny Byman emphasises storying as a pedagogical method that can reveal children’s emotional experiences of their local environments and broader societal phenomena such as climate change. The goal is a learning environment that enriches children’s emotions, storying and different encounters in the local environment, as well as encourages them to feel connected and form visions of their surroundings.

With an interest in pedagogical design, Chin-Chin Wong’s aim in her doctoral thesis is to establish a new pedagogy supporting children’s eco-literacy development in schools through leveraging teachers’ creative pedagogical practices. Her research work focuses on the Riddle of the Spirit project and investigates the opportunities/challenges of engaging children in exploring their interrelations with natural systems, through stories, art, science, and holistic and bodily experience in the natural environment.

Illustration from the picture book Bubble.

And I don’t want them to kill them.  

In our research, children have expressed emotional, moral and sensual perspectives of nature. We have highlighted some of the children’s thoughts in the Finnish-language publication Maapallon tulevaisuus ja lapsen oikeudet. These descriptions shed light upon children’s environmental concerns, solution-oriented suggestions and reflections of personal experiences in and about nature.

For example, Theo (8 years old) described his close and caring relationship with the trees in his backyard, and how forest degradation in the local environment caused him feelings of sadness and distress: “And I don’t want them to kill those living trees from behind the (school), and I’d like to tear those signs off”.

Elsi (8 years old) explained how she and her friends strive to protect nature and influence other people by drawing and handing out posters that emphasise the importance of protecting nature.

Liisa (8 years old), on the other hand, highlighted a meaningful sensory experience in the nearby forest: “Well, at least during rainier times in the autumn, there is a lovely humidity. And there is such a wonderful silence…”. 

A picture of Julle the forest elf created by a child using the MyARJulle application.

When children are given the opportunity to reflect on the past, the present and the future through storying and the arts, we find them producing diverse and imaginative visions and reflections. When we let go of the standards of repeating and measuring knowledge and give more space for exploring through feeling and sensing, new worlds open up for us. Through them, we also create unpredictable opportunities of change for children, educators and the environment.

Thus approaching children as competent and engaged participants in their living environments creates spaces for them to join the conversation with us, which also opens up new environmental perspectives for adults to engage with.

Pedagogical materials and ideas to support children’s environmental discussions  

The pedagogical materials we have developed and use in our research are designed for children aged 0-8 years and they encourage children’s wonder and exploration of their local environments through a combination of artistic and scientific inquiry. The materials are based on multiliteracies pedagogy and are designed in collaboration with The Joy of Learning Multiliteracies (MOI) research and development programme at the University of Helsinki.

The pedagogy of multiliteracies, emphasises children’s own multimodal storycrafting and storytelling that enable children to communicate their thoughts and experiences in diverse ways, including through words, texts, images, sounds, symbols, movements and activities.  

Our pedagogical materials include the Riddle of the Spirit based on old Finnish myths, in which children discuss and reflect through storying on themes related to the environment and climate change. The digital application MyArJulle, uses augmented reality technology and invites children to explore and photograph their local environment with Julle the forest elf. In additions, the picture book Bubble encourages children to join an adventure with a small soap bubble in the forest through embodied and multisensory exploration of the environment. The materials are available on the ECHOing website for download in English, Finnish and Swedish.

How to invite and encourage children to join in exploring and discussing the environment: 

  • Taking children’s own local environments and experiences as the starting point.
  • Attending to the interdependent relations between the natural world and humans.
  • Approaching children as experts of their own experiences and environments, as well as engaged participants in their local environments.
  • Creating opportunities for children to share their stories in diverse ways and on the child’s own terms.
  • Affording children multiple ways to explore and express, by listening, drawing, painting, shaping, expressing and using digital tools.
  • Exploring children’s local environments from many different perspectives and angles, for example, by thinking about how different animals and plants experience the environment.
  • Valuing children’s sensory experiences and emotions as important for environmental knowledge and understanding, alongside scientific knowledge
  • Exploring, wondering and learning together with children as co-researchers


Doctoral researchers Jenny Renlund, Jenny Byman and Chin-Chin Wong, and Professor Kristiina Kumpulainen are part of the ECHOing research team. 


Byman, J., Kumpulainen, K., Wong, C. C., & Renlund, J. (In press). Children’s emotional experiences in and about nature across temporal-spatial entanglements during digital storying. Literacy 55 (4).

Kumpulainen, K., Byman, J, Renlund, J, & Wong, C. C. (2020). “Puu on vähän niin kuin ihminen, sekin alkaa itkeä” – Luontosuhde ja maapallon tulevaisuus lasten kertomana. [“A tree is like a human being, it can cry too”. Children’s stories of human-nature relations and the future of our planet]. In E. Pekkarinen & T. Tuukkanen (Eds.), Lapsen oikeudet ja maapallon tulevaisuus. Lapsiasiavaltuutetun toimisto.

Nordström, A., Sairanen, H., Byman, J., Renlund, J., & Sintonen, S. (In press). Widening text worlds in Finnish early childhood education. In H. Harju-Luukkainen, J. Kangas, & S. Garvis (Eds.), Finnish Early Childhood Education and Care – A Multi-theoretical perspective on research and practice. Springer.

Pekkarinen, E., Tuukkanen, T., & Kekkonen, K. (2020). Maapallon tulevaisuus ja lapsen oikeudet: Johdatus teokseen. In E. Pekkarinen, & T. Tuukkanen (Eds.), Lapsen oikeudet ja maapallon tulevaisuus. Lapsiasiavaltuutetun toimisto.

Renlund, J., Kumpulainen, K., Byman, J., & Wong, C. C. (In press). ‘I could smell the sound of winter’: Children’s aesthetic experiences in the local forest through digital storying. In Kumpulainen, K., Kajamaa, A., Erstad, O., Mäkitalo, Å., Drotner, K., & Jakobsdóttir, S. (Eds.), Nordic Childhoods in the Digital Age: Insights into Contemporary Research on Communication. Routledge.

Wong, C. C. & Kumpulainen, K. (2019). Multiliteracies pedagogy promoting young children’s ecological literacy on climate change. In K. Kumpulainen & J. Sefton-Green (Eds.), Multiliteracies and Early Years Innovation: Perspectives from Finland and Beyond. Routledge.

Pedagogical materials

Byman, J., Renlund, J., Kumpulainen, K., Keso, M., Sintonen, S., Sairanen, H., & Nordström, A. (2020). Kupla – Monilukutaitoa pienten lasten iloksi. MOI – Monilukutaitoa opitaan ilolla. Helsingin yliopisto.

Kumpulainen, K. & Keso, M. (2019). MyARJulle – Storying App. The Joy of Learning Multiliteracies. University of Helsinki.

Wong, C. C., Kumpulainen, K., Sintonen, S., Sairanen, H., Byman, J., Renlund, J., Erfving, E., & Hintsa, A. (2020). Riddle of the Spirit. University of Helsinki, Playful Learning Center.