Nowadays childhood environmental education is attracting increasing attention and is being considered as a significant focus of research activity (Davis 2009, 2010; Kopnina 2011; Kossack & Bogner 2012; Lee & Kang, 2012; Onura et al. 2011; Williams et al. 2012). The increase in global environmental concern and the subsequent growth in the number of environmental awareness initiatives have been pointed out as crucial factors in this interest aimed towards children’s consciousness of the environment (Hussar & Horvath, 2011).
In this respect, a significant line of research has attempted to examine the relationship between biological knowledge and environmental awareness. Regarding this topic, a considerable amount of research has been undertaken across different educational levels, for instance, in primary education (Mutisya & Barker, 2011), in secondary education (Rioux, 2011) and also, among undergraduates (Arora & Agarwal, 2011; He et al. 2011) and adults (Robelia & Murphyb 2011).
Regarding the earliest educational levels, a wide area of research has been conducted to examine young children’s grasp of the basic biological concepts and, especially, how the notion of living being evolves during childhood (see for instance: Inagaki & Hatano, 2008; Margett & Witherington, 2011; Leddon et al. 2011; Lee & Kang, 2012 and Osborne & Freyberg, 1985). Moreover, from another separate perspective, profuse research activity has been undertaken in the study of young children’s judgment on the environment (Ergazaki & Andriotou, 2010; Hussar & Horvath, 2011; Severson & Kahn, 2010).
Nevertheless, as far as our knowledge extends, no research has been carried out regarding the relationship between young children’s environmental consciousness and their conception of living kinds. This is the case, even though some research claims that young children would not be able to form judgments related to harmful actions against the environment that have been recorded, without a basic understanding of the distinction between living beings and inanimate entities (Severson & Kahn, 2010).
In view of this, the scope of this essay is the emergence of the understanding of the concept of living things among children between 4 and 6 years old, their environmental judgement and the reflection on the role that individual’s normative judgment may play in the emergence of the concept of animacy.
The following provides a concise review on the current state of research on the subject of how young children build the concept of alive. After that, an overview of key issues regarding the study of young children’s environmental judgment is presented. This initial chapter will finish by introducing the objectives of this research.
The emergence of the concept of living beings
The living being concept is a remarkable scientific notion that raises the possibility of building an integrated understanding of biological knowledge. Unsurprisingly, it has been a focus of reflection from both a theoretical perspective (El-Hani, 2008) and the field science education (Caravita & Falchetti, 2005; Schroeder et al. 2010; Yorek et al. 2009).
Moreover, the understanding of how human beings learn to classify some entities as living beings, as opposed to those which are referred to as inanimate objects, is a recurrent research issue in the field of developmental psychology (Woodward et al. 2001). Likewise, the study of this cognitive ability has proved to be very influential in other areas of research, such as those connected to human cognitive impairment (Zaitchik & Solomon, 2008) or to the origin of the human cognitive system (Tsutsumi et al. 2012).
Focusing on the study of how the comprehension of the concept of living being is developed during childhood, much of the recent research has been carried out challenging the Piagetian perspective of animacy (Piaget, 1929). According to this paradigm, children’s limitations when handling non evident cause-and-effect relationships that underlie many biological phenomena and, also, the ontological egocentrism that characterizes children during the preoperational stage (Kesselring & M&üller, 2011) allow very little room for the consideration that young children’s concept of animacy might have some degree of internal coherence, consistency and predictive value (Solomon & Zaitchik, 2012).
In contrast to this account, in recent times an extensive and also diverse research endeavour has been undertaken seeking to overcome the developmental limitations posed by the Piagetan view. This line of research is based upon the assumption that conceptual development is conditioned, but not limited, on the one side, by an innate cognitive nucleus, which is common to all human beings (Spelke & Kinzler, 2007), and, on the other side, by social and cultural experiences (Scheinholtz et al. 2010).
(Keil, Accordingly, the interaction between these two factors would boost intuitive explanatory frameworks, also the so-called naïve theories 2010), that consist of a “systems of interrelated concepts that generate predictions and explanations in particular domains of experience” (Murphy, 1993). This primordial body of beliefs concerning particular phenomena might not coincide with scientific perspective but it serves the crucial purpose of relating particular events to wider generalizations and it involves causal explanations and abstract entities.
In this respect, one of the most salient standpoints is related to the so-called vitalistic-causality conception. This view states that at some point between the age of 4 and 8 children give up the behavioral understanding of living things, which appears linked to the existence of volitional activity (Carey, 1985). At this moment, they start to form explanations in which the internal structure of organisms and the importance of nutrients, water and air stand out (Inagaki & Hatano, 2008; Slaughter & Lyons, 2003). A characteristic feature of this type of thinking is that children rely on the existence of some kind of energy or life force which is inherent in the essential substances to support life and, moreover, that they attribute some kind of intentionality to our organs in order to sustain life (Lindeman & Saher, 2007).
Furthermore, an alternative point of view underscores the fact that the ability to categorize objects as animate and inanimate entities emerges spontaneously very early during development, even during the first months of life (Molina, Van de Walle, Condry & Spelke, 2004). Additionally, it has also been reported that human beings share this cognitive ability with other nonhuman primates (Tsutsumi et al., 2012).
This evidence suggests an essentialist standpoint that states the existence of an inborn cognitive structure which is supposed to be predisposed in human beings from the earliest stages of the development to identify living things and to interact with them.
Presumably, this early ability to pay special attention to living things, and especially to human beings, might have an undeniable adaptive value and is considered as a consequence of the fact that even babies can spot some crucial features related to movement patterns and physical characteristics linked to animate entities (Sanefuji, Wada, Yamamoto, Shizawa, Matsuzaki, Mohri, Ozone & Taniike, 2011).
Finally, another line of research has focused on the study of teleological explanations that children show in their comprehension of biological phenomena and their understanding of living things. These explanations are characterized by the fact that individuals interpret natural phenomena based on assumptions regarding objectives, designs or purposes for which different agents (living beings, biological or geological events, organs, etcetera) have been created (Kelemen et al. 2005). It is worth noting that invoking teleological explanations to account for natural phenomena is not an exclusive feature of children’s thinking. Much to the contrary, adults also frequently use this kind of thinking when attempting to make sense of a broad range of biological and geological phenomena (González & Meinardi 2011; Kelemen & Rosset, 2009).
On the whole, the presented areas of research address the study of the process of constructing the notion of living being from the perspective of the individual’s cognition. In this context, how individuals give sense to the notion of animate entities and what kind of explanatory theories they use to distinguish living beings from inanimate objects are the main areas of study.
However, what remains a subject of debate within literature is the way in which children progress through the different conceptions of living things and what kind of social practices have the potential to boost children in this progression until reaching a coherent significance with scientific perspective (Leddon et al., 2011; Schroeder et al., 2010).
Early environment judgment in childhood
Moving on to the examination of the main lines of research concerning the study of young children’s environmental judgment, most of the available research on this topic is related to the issues of, firstly, whether children hold moral reasoning when it comes to judging harmful actions against nature and, secondly, whether the judgement they produce is linked to a human-centred framework or whether, on the contrary, they are apt to employ nature-centric arguments.
Regarding the first point, the most significant research starts out from a cognitive-developmental approach and more specifically, from Turiel’s social-domain theory (Turiel 1983; Smetana, 2006). According to this theoretical perspective, moral reasoning is related to the development and coordination of the three different but decisive domains of knowledge regarding normative reasoning: moral domain (concerning the physical or psychological harm that can be caused to others), social-conventional domain (linked to social norms, rules or traditions) and psychological domain (related to personal choices such as leisure time, clothing or friends).
Previous cognitive-developmental approaches in the field of moral psychology stated that an individual’s normative reasoning progresses from a preconventional initial moral standpoint in which acts are considered right or wrong on the basis of expected punishment, to the highest moral stages in which rules are justified by abstract and universal principles (Kohlberg, 1969; 1981). In contrast to this standpoint, Turiel’s social-domain theory regards that knowledge in each of the domains (moral, social-conventional and personal) determines the subject’s normative reasoning and additionally, that the development of these domains run parallel from early childhood.
Regarding the study of young children’s environmental judgment in concordance with Turiel’s theory, recent research accounts for the fact that children consider environmentally harmful behaviour worse than social-conventional transgressions but, likewise, they consider actions against a human beings’ psychological or physical welfare (that is, moral transgressions) as the most objectionable. Consequently, this line of research strongly suggests a different normative domain for environmental judgment, which would be separated from moral, socio-conventional and psychological domains (Hussar & Horvath, 2011).
Moreover, complementary data regarding young children’s environmental judgment refers to the finding that young children are able to use biocentric reasoning (namely, judgments linked to the idea that the environment is worthy of some kind of moral status -Schmidt, 2011-) when it comes to judging environmental transgressions (Ergazaki & Andriotou, 2010; Hussar & Horvath, 2011; Severson & Kahn, 2010).
In this regard, in a significant study regarding 4 and 5 year old children’s justifications against forest fire, Ergazaki and Andriotou (2010) emphasize the idea that children’s biocentric (Ergazaki & Andriotou, judgment concerning the environment needs to have any relationship with their understanding of biological concepts. More specifically, this study report a significant number of young children who sustain their opinions on the basis of “flora-centric” criteria such as: “plants can grow like us … we must let them grow” 2010, p. 194). These authors conclude that the use of this kind of reasoning by young children suggest that they have to handle some basic knowledge about the distinction between living and nonliving things.
These thoughts are certainly in line with recent research which confirms that young children demonstrate not only a basic biological framework for differentiating living and nonliving kinds, but also a more sophisticated understanding of plants as living beings than previously thought (Margett & Witherington, 2011).
Furthermore, it is worth noting that these ideas contrast with the well-documented fact concerning the limited knowledge that young children display about plant life and, also, the difficulties that they find when it comes to attributing life status to plants (Gatt et al. 2007; Leddon et al. 2009; Opfer & Siegler, 2004). It has even been suggested that there is a progressive development of the animacy concept according to which the concept of life is granted firstly to human, then to animals and after that, to plants (Yorek et al. 2009).
Summing up, some studies report that even young children award a particular moral status to living creatures in the environment, including plants. This fact leads some scholars to suggest that children possess some basic knowledge of the notion of living being around which they can structure their biocentric justifications. However a significant number of studies state that the understanding of the notion of living beings, especially when it comes to considering those of which have a stationary nature, is thought to be beyond the comprehension of young children.
Objectives of the research
According to the framework presented in this introductory chapter, this research aims to provide additional data regarding the link between young children’s environmental judgement and the understanding of the notion of living being.
With this in mind, the objectives proposed in this study are as follows. Firstly, the research will analyse young children’s understanding of the concept of living being by means of testing their ability to distinguish living beings from inanimate objects.
Moreover, the study will attempt to determine whether young children judge harmful actions against nature more severely than the breaking of social conventions and, consequently, whether they regard undesirable behaviour against the environment to be more of an equivalent to moral transgressions.
Subsequently, the aforementioned data concerning both the comprehension of the concept of living being and environmental judgment will be examined in relation to the age of the children.
Finally the study reflects on the relationship between the understanding of the concept of living being that the children of the sample show and the pattern of choice that they express concerning the alternative between actions against the environment and violations of social conventions.