When I first got into environmental education the idea that kids would share what they learned with their adults at home and influence their attitudes and decisions was common. A new study by Hartley et al (2021) examined whether kids could influence adults outside of their immediate family. To sum up, kids got the power.
Kids, 8-10 years old, in North Carolina participated in a year long program on marine debris, such as single use plastics. As part of their year the kids developed a series of in-person and virtual civic engagement events for local officials and community members. The events included talent shows and poetry nights, public service announcements and formal presentations. The researchers tested the adults’ concern about marine debris and support for public ordinances. They asked respondents to indicate their agreement before and after the events.
Hartley et al report that the respondents did not match the overall make up of the population in North Carolina as there was a higher proportion of White individuals and the respondents were older on average. However, the split between male and female was about even, as was the split between liberal, conservative, and independent. The results indicate that the youth had an impact regardless of gender or race or any connection with the kids. After participating in the events respondents did increase their concern and increased their support for related ordinances. Significantly, individuals who identified as conservative showed a bigger shift which reduced the partisan differences between conservatives and liberals.
As many of our communities are becoming more and more divided along partisan lines this research has potentially important applications. In all my time working with kids I have been very aware that they are much smarter than many people seem to give them credit for. They always ask great questions about why things are the way they are and come up with out of the box solutions. And as the Fridays for the Future movement works hard to remind us, it is their future that is at risk when we don’t make sustainable choices. I believe though that these events and actions need to be led by the kids themselves. It means nothing if the kids act as figureheads and that is one of the things I appreciate about the research described here, the teachers helped support the students by doing things like helping them learn what makes a good public service announcement, but they did not determine what the kids were going to do or what messages they would share. Based on my own experience, I expect that this made the process more meaningful for the students and for the community members who participated in the events.