Warriors of the rainbow : the unfolding of agency in early adolescents' environmental involvement




Blanchet-Cohen, Natasha

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This study examines the meaning of environmental involvement for early adolescents based on research with children from around the world. It arises from an interest in understanding the role children play in bringing about change in society given the increase interest in children's rights. Literature on environmental education pointed to action as a focus of analysis for researching the activities of "environmentally-involved" children. In gathering the study data, agency emerged as a more appropriate organizing concept given the depth and contextual nature of children's environmental involvement. Agency places the emphasis on defining how children interact with the various structures that affect their lives. Through the lens of agency, light is shed on children's creativity and pragmatism, with children's actions, critical thinking and imagination being of equal importance. The ability of children to maneuver through significant life experiences, beliefs towards nature, and age-defined barriers stands out. The study also shows how the unfolding of agency is intimately linked to learning and identity-building in early adolescence. Environmental involvement becomes a medium for children to explore and define themselves in relation to others, including the social and physical environment, as they transition from childhood to adulthood. The 2002 International Children's Environment Conference held in Victoria, Canada, which brought together 400 environmentally involved 10-to-12 year olds from 66 countries, provided the site for the research. Diverse methods served to explore the research questions: 42 open-ended interviews, using both literal and metaphorical questions, mind-mapping activities. 116 visual surveys, and field notes. Elements of grounded theory and narrative inquiry were used to analyze and present the data. The shape of a rainbow served as a unifying metaphor to present the environmental agency model. Although the children came from different parts of the globe, I identified a collective view of the world -- attributed to their shared development process and a favourable international agenda. Six dimensions of agency are identified. In connectedness, children relate to nature as well as to other people. It deals with the sense of wonder, often evoked in descriptions of special place. In engaging with the environment, children integrate and process the knowledge gained from direct or indirect contact with nature. In questioning, children respond to the world awakening to its contradictions and complexities. In belief in capacity, children see themselves as affecting change and are hopeful for the planet's future. In taking a stance, children overcome the lack of adult and peer support. Then comes strategic action, where children select an approach to addressing environmental problems. The shape of the rainbow arc and blending of its bands reflect the interlinkages between all the dimensions. Annotated vignettes bring to life how the six dimensions of environmental agency play out in the life of each child. Although they unfold differently, the dimensions have relevance to each environmental story. Four profiles of involvement have been recognized: initiator, creative, member, and grounded. The typology represents the variety and complexity in children's environmental activism. There is a need to value the range of environmental experiences children engage in, of the role of process and the subtleties involved in building relationships with nature and society. Adults need to partner with children multiplying the opportunities for children to express their agency. As warriors of the rainbow, children's most intriguing contribution may lie in the way that they convey to others, with frankness and lucidity, their concern for the environment, our planet.



children, environment