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Children's Literature and the Exploration of Environmental Challenges: Initial Findings

Anna Donnelly, Assistant Professor, Centre for Teacher Education

There has been a proliferation of children’s literature which explores environmental themes in recent years, as well as a tangible perceived urgency to tackling climate change. As a lecturer passionate about children’s literature and reading, I wanted to better understand how children might experience this literature in an average sized Coventry school. Reading happens in a context that is constructed by the reader (Cremin. T. 2008, 2012, 2014, 2015). Their schemata are “...based on the interactions they experience, to help them understand the world.” (p.7. Piaget, 1952). In order to understand how readers interact with texts linked to the environment; I wanted to better understand what conceptual framework the children in the sample brought to the reading experience relating to environmental concepts.

When planning the research, I wanted to learn more about:

  • What knowledge and opinions do the children already bring to the reading of the texts?
  • How do the texts engage the children in ‘talk’ linked to the environment?
  • What impact did the texts have on the children?

I recruited a school with which to collaborate and together, the teachers and I chose from a range of high quality children’s literature linked to the environment to explore with their children, using Chambers’ ‘Tell Me’ approach (Chambers, 2011) as a guide to exploring the texts with a mixed ‘attaining’ group of 6 children with an even gender split. Teacher received training in how to do this and I supported their data collection, which was in the form of recording their conversations and observing reader behaviours throughout the ‘book talk’ reading and conversation. The children’s literature discussed were:

Year 2 – Somebody Swallowed Stanley
by Sarah Roberts and Hannah Peck

Year 4 – The Great Kapok Tree
by Lynne Cherry

Year 6 – One Plastic Bag
by Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon

A narrative about a plastic bag that finds itself in the ocean, being mistaken for a jellyfish and endangering animals that attempt to eat it, eventually being reused to create another product. The writer is an animal behaviourist and ‘wants to find engaging ways to help people understand about big environmental issues.’ It explores themes of recycling, habitat preservation, animal welfare and global responsibility.

A fiction/non-fiction hybrid narrative which gives voice to many of the organisms which depend upon the tree to survive. Loggers are persuaded somehow to choose not to cut this tree down, but the ending is far from clear. The writer is an activist and communicates this directly in her letter at the end of the text. It explores themes of habitat preservation and ecological diversity, the rights of indigenous people and empowerment of the voiceless.

A fiction/non-fiction hybrid narrative about a woman whose palm leaf basket breaks, finds a plastic bag and then discovers some of the problems associated with using these, including the untimely death of several village goats. It explores themes of recycling, habitat preservation, animal welfare, global responsibility and empowerment.

Reflecting on key findings, it is worth noting that the reading behaviours of all children communicated a sustained and engrossed experience with the texts presented to them. Teachers used a ‘slow’ reading approach (Pantaleo, S. 2020) in the form of shared reading (where the teacher reads aloud and the children follow along), Guided reading (where the teacher guides children to explore the text at a slow pace, linger on and think about possible things to notice in words and images, navigating their own reading pathway with some intervention from teacher) and independent reading (where children control their own reading pathways explore the text at their own pace until they are ready to stop). Discussion was shaped by using a range of teacher selected open questions inspired by Chambers’ ‘Tell Me’ approach. Children were not used to this approach and as a group it is unclear if the quality of the discussion and thinking might have been supported further if the approach was used more regularly and the children knew the expectations of the discussion. Despite utilising a ‘tell me’ approach to encourage discussion, there was a lack of philosophical and openly tentative discussion or questions posed. This may well indicate that children were not used to this type of discussion and were therefore perhaps not sure how to engage in it or even if it was desirable for them to do so. It is fair to say that all teachers with whom I work all observed that the open, discursive way in which children were being encouraged to explore the text was markedly different in motivation, technique and perceived outcomes by the children, than their usual approach which focussed on curriculum outcomes and test preparedness. Teachers all observed time being a factor in preventing this kind of exploratory conversation linked to texts.

It appeared that there was mixed knowledge and opinions brought to the reading of the text, linked to the environment. Some children conceptualised the environmental issue as ‘other’, happening to someone else, somewhere else; not making connections between their life and the issues explored in each of the texts. Timothy et al (2012) might conceptualise this as a ‘derangement of scale’ in which local environmental events or issues are not connected to global events or issues. Broadly, there was empathy towards living things that were affected by the issues in the narratives, whether it be an anthropomorphised plastic bag, forest creatures or indigenous peoples. The extent to which this empathy would drive changes in attitudes and crucially, behaviours towards taking climate action was not within the scope of the study, but it could certainly be argued that it may be an important foundation in the development of understanding, given that emotions play a significant role in driving our decision making (Decity et al. 2016).

In all cases, children were enthralled by the texts and children made their own reading pathways across the written and visual, sustaining concentration and wandering through the text, guided by teachers to look slowly and notice things. It may be that as Pantaleo (2020) suggests, with practice, this skills may well develop and support more sustained conversations. Evidence of detailed scientific knowledge in the discussion was limited and whilst there was an explicit mention of ‘global warming’, the space between scientific fact and narrative was tangible - children were not often able to clearly articulate connections between activity in the text linked to concepts such as deforestation, habitat destruction, biodiversity or biodegradable materials. It may be that these concepts were tacitly understood through the narrative, but one might question if this is enough of a connection between fiction and fact to prompt significant attitudinal and sustained behavioural changes. It could equally be that the English National Curriculum in Primary Science currently has zero references to ‘climate’ or ‘climate change’ and only in the non-statutory notes is there a mention that “Pupils should explore examples of human impact (both positive and negative) on environments, for example, the positive effects of nature reserves, ecologically planned parks, or garden ponds, and the negative effects of population and development, litter or deforestation.” (English National Curriculum, 2014). The primary Geography curriculum in England has nothing in it that refers to ‘climate change’. One might argue that this has also impacted upon not only what children explicitly learn in school but also therefore, the kinds of substantial conversations happening in school about these issues of local, national and global importance.

This pilot, small-scale study does not offer any definitive answers as to how all children experience children’s literature linked to environmental challenges. However, the children who took part in the study most certainly have given valuable insights into what knowledge and opinions that children already have before reading texts linked to the environment. In this research, they were broadly able to make links to the generic idea that the environment is important, something which the narratives reinforced. Children were broadly very comfortable with exploring the text and sustaining their interest in what they saw and read and were able to express opinions about the events within each of them. Additionally, most of the children were able to identify some environmental or moral message within the narrative threads. However, discussion that explored environmental specifics, including knowledge of the interconnectedness of environmental challenges was by and large, missing in action. Children were not used to having ethical and philosophical discussions about the environment; even if they were, it is unclear if they would be able to root these discussions within a framework of environmental knowledge necessary to move their thinking forwards and transform any changes in attitudes to action. It is possible that further interdisciplinary research between the sciences and the social sciences will be necessary to better understand how children and young people understand the environment. Early years and primary schools have a key role in ensuring that scientific knowledge of the environmental challenges that we face is explored, but a key vehicle for this could be connecting this with early narrative discussions inspired by environmental text. After all, narrative is a crucial part of how we see the world, how we frame and reframe our understandings and how we position ourselves and our actions


  • Chambers, A. (1995) Tell Me: Children, Reading, and Talk. Stenhouse Publishers.
  • Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Bearne, E. and Goodwin, P. (2008) Exploring teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature. Cambridge Journal of Education 38 (4): 449-464.
  • Cremin, T. (2010) Motivating children to read through literature in G. Gillon, J. Fletcher, and F. Parkhill, (Eds) Motivating literacy learners in today’s world. Auckland: New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER)
  • Adapted from pages 97-99 and 115-118 in Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Collins, F., Powell, S. and Safford, K. (2014) Building Communities of Engaged Readers: Reading for pleasure. London/New York: Routledge.
  • Decety J, Bartal IB, Uzefovsky F, Knafo-Noam A. Empathy as a driver of prosocial behaviour: highly conserved neurobehavioural mechanisms across species. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2016 Jan 19;371(1686):20150077. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0077. PMID: 26644596; PMCID: PMC4685523.
  • Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.
  • Timothy, C.(2012) “Derangements of Scale”, in Cohen, T. 2021) eds. Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, pp.148-66. Michigan: Open Humanities Press. Online at;view=fulltext