EE Research: Storytelling as a Tool for Young Learners

Using storytelling is the best way to engage very young students

from EE Research Bulletin
Nicole Ardoin, Editor

Research suggests that lasting attitudes toward nature and the environment form in the first few years of a child’s life; thus, instilling environmental awareness in very young children represents a key challenge and an exciting opportunity for environmental educators. Although firsthand experiences in nature in early childhood have been shown to contribute to environmental awareness, educators working in urban areas may find it difficult to arrange such experiences. In these circumstances, fictional or non-fictional narratives about nature and the environment may offer an alternate means of exposing young children to environmental subjects.

To investigate the effectiveness of storytelling as an environmental education tool, the authors of this study developed a short, fictional, preschool-level story about deforestation. The authors structured the story around the “binary opposite” concepts of security and insecurity (i.e., trees provide security, while deforestation leads to insecurity). Prior research has shown that this type of simple dichotomy, especially when paired with other narrative tools such as mystery, imagery, morals, and metaphor, can effectively capture the attention of very young children and help them construct meaning from new experiences.

In addition to the story, the authors designed a second lesson to present the same ideas in a more traditional expository format. Both the story and the expository lesson included information about important environmental regulation functions that trees perform, such as oxygen production, flood control, and air filtration.

The study took place in Southeastern Europe, a region heavily affected by deforestation. A total of 79 students from eight urban preschools with attendance from predominantly middle-class families, participated in the story-based lesson, while a control group of 80 students from the same schools received the expository lesson. Researchers assessed all students’ ideas about the importance of trees, and level of interest in tree planting as a free-time activity, prior to the lessons. A second assessment took place one week after the lessons, and a third followed about two months later.

In reviewing the assessment results, the authors found that students in the storytelling group demonstrated significantly better recall of key ideas from the lesson. One week after the lessons, when asked to explain why trees are important to humans, students in the story group focused almost exclusively on environmental regulation functions. Students in the expository group mentioned fewer regulation functions, and many students also mentioned raw material functions such as making furniture or paper. The differences between the two groups became even more pronounced eight weeks after the lesson, suggesting that the storytelling approach also improved long-term retention of the lesson material.

Both lessons increased students’ interest in tree planting as a free-time activity. Prior to the lessons, only a few students in each group chose planting trees in their hometown when asked to select two free-time activities from a list of seven options. In post-lesson assessments, over half of the students in the storytelling group and about one-third of those in the expository group selected tree planting. The authors surmise that the students gained new interest in planting trees as a result of learning about trees’ ecosystem functions and role in supporting human life. Students in the story group, who demonstrated a more significant knowledge benefit from the lesson, also exhibited a greater awareness of deforestation as a problem and a stronger motivation to act.

Despite the effectiveness of the storytelling approach, presenting very young children with vivid narratives about environmental problems does raise ethical issues.
As the authors note, stories that evoke powerful anxiety are usually inappropriate for young children. Children exposed to these narratives could develop negative feelings about the environment in general, and a desire to disengage from the natural world.

However, shielding children from environmental problems is both inappropriate and impractical. Societies will need long-term engagement from their youngest members to address these issues. And in many parts of the world, even the youngest children already have firsthand experience with the consequences of environmental degradation.
Given these observations, the authors conclude that stories designed to communicate both knowledge and hope can give young children a healthy awareness of environmental problems and help them contribute to long-term solutions.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Presenting information about an environmental problem in the form of narrative (fiction or non-fiction) may help raise environmental awareness among very young students. In this empirical study, students who participated in a story-based lesson about deforestation retained more key ideas about the problem, and demonstrated higher motivation to contribute to solutions, than did students who participated in a content-equivalent expository lesson. Stories aimed at young students should be structured around “binary opposite” concepts (such as security in a healthy environment versus insecurity in an unhealthy environment) and should include vivid imagery as well as elements of mystery and wonder. For young students in particular stories abut environmental problems should emphasize solutions and hope.