January 28th, 2021

Supporting Eco-Character Development Through Community-Based Inquiry Learning

By Andrea Kunze

Abstract. This study investigates whether children at an urban place-based environmental education camp can develop three dimensions of eco-character development after week-long participation: Head (knowledge), Hand/Feet (action), and Heart (care/connection). Using a community-based and inquiry-driven curriculum, campers practiced the roles of an arborist, ecologist, and environmental steward. Fifty-five Campers were assessed on all three dimensions using a 10-question pre/post-survey.  An overall increase in content knowledge, relationships with nature, and motivation for pro-environmental behaviors were found. Outdoor environmental education summer camps and other out of school experiences may be the new avenue for educators and instructors to consider when trying to promote positive eco-character development in future generations.


Keywords: Positive Youth Character Development, Environmental Education, Place-Based Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, Motivation

Disclosure Statement

No competing financial interests exist.



Brody’s Theory of Learning in Nature posits that physical time in nature creates a cognitive-affective experience for people, which can affect relationships with nature (Brody, 2005). Someone whose time is spent doing outdoor activities like hiking or gardening should have a different relationship with the environment and nature than someone who spends most time inside. The relationship and connection to nature people develop are shaped by their community location (e.g., rural, suburban, urban) and environmental attitudes (i.e., what they know and believe), which also influences pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs) (Scannell & Gifford, 2010). PEBs are described as actions taken to protect or do no harm to the physical environment, including sustainable behaviors (Steg & Vlek, 2009), and because of the current climate crisis, there is a need for determining how we can effectively promote PEBs in more citizens. Non-formal educational camps offer opportunities for developing positive character values in youth, such as connection and care, because of their collaborative and inquiry-based structure (Kruse & Card, 2004). Community-based environmental education camps may be able to capture a wider audience of young children because of their convenience and relevance and have the potential to promote ecologically-focused character development. To my knowledge, few studies have explored the concept of eco-character development that occurs in young children from non-formal learning experiences. This study takes an exploratory mixed-methods approach to understand how a week-long community-based environmental education camp affected urban-based children’s’ eco-character development.

Education and the Natural World

Learning About the Natural World 

Inquiry required. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) provide standards for practices and competencies in most science domains that K-12 students need to master to be able to inquire about the natural world; however, it is worth noting ecology or environmental science are two domains of science not directly stated in the standards (NGSS, 2018). The practices identified within the NGSS are developed from those commonly found within inquiry-based learning frameworks (NRC, 2012; Pedaste et al., 2015). Four components make up inquiry-based learning: organization, conceptualization, investigation, and conclusion. Instruction that includes these practices are more effective than traditional instructional practices for learning different types of science topics (Abdi, 2014; Şimşek & Kabapınar, 2010). Additionally, inquiry-based learning often taps into twenty-first-century skill development, such as critical thinking, collaboration, and communication (Department of Education, 2015), which are crucial skills for developing into successful citizens (Partnerships for 21st Century Learning, 2007). I believe inquiry-based learning would provide a framework for ecological and environmental education that could support opportunities for developing ecologically-conscious citizens, which supports the many global “Green” initiatives (e.g., Paris Agreement, 2016; Sustainable Development Goals, 2015).

More than just facts. Environmental education (EE) considers the ecological sciences, as well as interest in nature and societal needs/demands (Brody, 2005). EE and ecological education can help develop learners’ environmental content knowledge (Farmer et al., 2007), connection to the natural world (Barrable, 2019), and understanding of the relationship between humans and nature (Judson, 2010). EE supports the notion that learning about the environment should include how an individual develops a relationship or disposition towards the environment (Frantz & Mayer, 2014). One study by Brody and colleagues (2002) found that knowledge was being constructed by an individual with their physical environment, and that physical experiences in nature led to the development in values for nature. Other studies have demonstrated how connection, and feeling a part of the physical environment and nature, is an important feature for developing positive environmental attitudes and behaviors in children and adults (Cialdini et al.,1997; Frantz & Mayer, 2014); however, there is great variance found in individuals’ attitudes towards nature (Bixler & Floyd, 1997). Because these attitudes hold great potential as motivators for whether individuals act out pro-environmental behaviors or not (e.g., recycling, using reusable bags) (Markle, 2013), there is a need to explore specific contexts and cases for when and how cognitive and affective skills for EE can be developed.

Non-formal environments. Teaching children environmental content knowledge (ECK) and promoting pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs) and attitudes are crucial in developing a more sustainable future with more ecologically-conscious individuals (Wu & Chen, 2014). Unfortunately, K-12 students have limited formal educational opportunities for ecological and environmental science. Fortunately, people spend most of their lives outside of the traditional classroom and in the “real world” (e.g., at home, work, parks, and libraries), calling a need to understand how non-formal and informal educational settings can play a role in the development of PEBs. Non-formal education includes informal learning settings can include spaces such as gardens, zoos, parks, aquariums, museums, and after school programs; however, they are designed with some instructional goal or structure (Not free-choice environments; Falk, 2005). Non-traditional learning spaces, such as youth summer camps, have multiple motivational benefits such as increased interest (Bonderup Dohn, 2011), and enjoyment (Lin et al. 2012). Motivation is a foundational affective process involved in the behaviors and actions people take (Ryan & Deci, 2006); therefore, informal settings may motivate groups of students who may not traditionally have an interest or enjoyment for environmental education or environmental-consciousness.

Camps as a learning context.  It’s estimated over 12 million people, mostly children and youth, attend camps and camp-like programs. Since as early as 1939, the concept of “Character Development” has been explored using camps (See Dimock & Hendry, 1939); however, researchers have called a need for more rigorous research to be conducted on camp outcomes (Henderson et al., 2007). A review of eleven studies on outdoor education camps serving grades fourth through twelfth found benefits for affective development, particularly self-concept, socialization, and attitudes towards learning outside (Crompton & Seller, 1981). An outdoor-based camp study by Cousineau and colleagues (2018) found students’ self-concepts were positively related to environmental awareness. Transformative events and experiences associated with the outdoors have been shown to increase environmental sensitivity, which is foundational to awareness and action (Chawla, 1998). Another study using a positive youth development framework (See Sibthorp et al., 2010) for an environmental stewardship camp found that a nature-based curriculum had significant effects on students’ problem solving and affinity to nature (Browne, Garst, & Bialeschki, 2011). These studies support Brody’s theory that both cognitive and affective processes are at play when children are engaging outdoors, as well as the notion that a semi-structured curriculum that is socially/community building is beneficial for child character development. EE programs and camps are an effective way of teaching children content knowledge (Duerden & Witt, 2010; Powers, 2004), as well as increase connection to nature (Collado et al., 2012; Ernst & Theimer, 2011; Stern et al., 2008). Considering camps are so widely accessed, and have shown positive benefits for affective and cognitive development, I argue EE camps may serve as effective contexts for promoting environmentally-conscious children.

Learning in the Natural World

Community and place-based learning. Locally-based youth programs are often attractive to parents due to accessibility, convenience, and lower cost. Community-based programs, such as the one used for this study, encompass the essence of place-based education settings. Place-based pedagogy uses the local community as the focal point for teaching students to connect concepts through inquiry-based learning experiences while emphasizing real-world learning experiences and relevance to their community (Sobel, 2003; Sobel, 2005). Because of the emphasis on relevance and connection to self, place-based learning aligns with EE’s goals of developing an understanding and connection to the environment in people. A weeklong residential EE camp has been found to have lasting effects on students’ content knowledge (Stern et al., 2008), suggesting lasting cognitive benefits from participating in camps that foster a community and place-based relevant pedagogy. Additionally, place-based education emphasizes re-inhabitation, which is a systemic process of developing relationships, responsibility, and care between local people and land for sustainability purposes (Gruenewald, 2003). This allows individuals to become empowered to take some ownership over their community (Dimick, 2012; Gruenewald & Smith, 2008), which supports theories of motivation that emphasize the importance of autonomy and ownership (See SDT, Ryan & Deci, 2000). 

Outdoor-based learning. According to the Theory of Learning in Nature, meaningful learning experiences are a product of the cognitive (e.g., reasoning) and affective (e.g., feeling) processes people engage in when exposed to nature physically, socially, and over time (Brody, 2005). This suggests that even children getting outside in their local green spaces over time can have some effects on their learning experiences. The framework also outlines thinking, acting, and feeling as the mechanisms that drive meaningful personal experiences in nature, which is reflective of Head, Hand/Feet, and Heart dimensions of positive youth character development (See Berkowitz & Bier, 2005). A study by Kals and colleagues (1999) found that 39% of people’s affinity towards nature can be explained by the various experiences they have had (past and present) within the natural world. This suggests that a large portion of an individual’s connection or Heart to the environment emerges from the positive exposure they have had with nature and is crucial for developing an understanding of their relationship with the environment. One study conducted on 2,000 adults found that childhood experiences, both domesticated (e.g., picking flowers in a garden) and wild (e.g., hunting or hiking) supported positive environmentalist attitudes in adulthood (Wells & Lekies, 2006). This supports the argument that early exposure to nature, even just in local green spaces or parks, benefits an individual’s development of PEBs and attitudes for later in life, which should contribute to more environmentally-conscious citizens. 

Urbanized environments. Community-based camps that provide EE, like the one in this study, offer practical hands-on experiences, and allow students to investigate their role in nature within their communities. Unfortunately, in many urban areas access to nature or green space is limited due to infrastructure (e.g., lack of parks) and economic reasons (e.g., the safety of neighborhoods) (Gelsthrope, 2017). Accessibility to green space in urban areas is often further limited by city infrastructure for African Americans and people considered socioeconomically disadvantaged (Dai, 2011). There are also assumptions that people of color and individuals who reside in more urban areas have fewer experiences or connections with nature and may even be at greater risk of developing biophobia, which relates to people’s conservation willingness (Zhang, Goodale, Chen, 2014). Despite assumptions, some authors have found no differences in students’ connection to nature across racial demographics and geographic locations and suggested fear towards nature is situational rather than dispositional (Taylor, 2018). The great loss of experience and interest in nature found in youth, however, may relate to the lack of access to green space with 60% of children expressing a lack of natural areas near their homes (Fairbank et al., 2016). This leaves concern for whether children growing up in urbanized communities are at higher risk of not developing PEBs. Because simple domesticated acts in nature (e.g., planting) have shown to be beneficial for sustained environmental attitudes (Well & Lekies, 2006; Williams, 2010), there is reason to believe there are opportunities for nature-based experiences even in the largest of concrete jungles; however, there is still a need for understanding how EE programs in urban communities can connect students to the urban-ecosystem to support a more localized understanding, connection, and appreciation for nature. 

Eco-Character Development 

With an emphasis on community connection, responsibility, and care (Gruenewald, 2003), in addition to helping students learn content knowledge, place-based education could be considered an effective practice for positive youth character development (PYCD). Berkowitz and Bier (2005) synthesized the definition of PYCD as the development of core virtues in children that include moral responsibility, respect, and care for self and others as they interact in society. The PYCD virtues can be broadly categorized as developing understanding (Head), care/connection (Heart), and act (Hand/Feet) (Ryan & Lickona, 1992). The core virtues are at the essence of environmental stewardship. Environmental stewardship is defined as “actions taken by individuals, groups or networks of actors, with various motivations and levels of capacity, to protect, care for or responsibly use the environment” (Bennett et al., 2018). Positive character development is important because they help people learn how to uphold societal responsibilities and welfare (Lickona, 1996). Considering the current climate crisis, I believe one’s ecological and environmental attitudes should be considered a virtue that needs to develop, and one that should be considered a part of PYCD. Using Ryan and Lickona’s Theory of Character Development (1992), I propose Eco-character Development as a new dimension of PYCD. Students’ care/connection (Heart), behaviors (Hand/Feet), and understanding (Head) of the environment are crucial to the development of ecological responsibility (Powell et al., 2011), and an overall positive ecological disposition or character. 

Purpose of Study

Researchers and educators have begun to call for better integration of civic responsibility into science education as a way of addressing sustainability goals (Girault & Sauvé, 2008; Sauvé, 2002). Considering the current climate crisis and the current state of formalized EE in K-12, non-formal outdoor-based EE camps serve as a viable avenue for supporting positive cognitive and affective experiences with the natural world for children. Only about a third of EE studies are conducted on ages eight to ten (Ardoin et al., 2018), and a similar trend in ages can be found across PYCD literature. Additionally, there are limited studies currently that are addressing EE with an urban-based curriculum. This study aims to shed some light on how an urban community- and inquiry-based learning environment focused on EE can promote positive eco-character development in late elementary and early middle-grade ages. To do this, I chose to observe local urban-based students’ relationships, PEBs, and knowledge about (and with) the environment before and after a weeklong outdoor EE camp. I specifically asked, how does a weeklong community-based environmental education camp affect students’ eco-character development? 


Camp Context

Each day of camp, students participated in multiple local outdoor-based activities lead by camp instructors that included inquiry-driven environmental education tasks, environmental stewardship driven tasks, and general outdoor play, for a total of 6 hours per day. Each of the inquiry activities emphasized different types of skills (e.g., communication or hypothesis making), and each skill was touched on repeatedly throughout the week (See Appendix A). The activities that involved PEBs, included planting trees and clearing out invasive species. The outdoor play activities included biking, Frisbee, and park picnics for lunch daily. A typical day for a camper would involve a morning bike or hike, some informal inquiry activity out in nature, lunch, planting around the local community, and another play-based activity outside. All the activities, except for pre/post-test, were conducted collaboratively or as a group. In Figure 1 I mapped the camp experience onto the Theory of Learning in Nature (Brody, 2005). It is worth noting that socially-shared feelings were not directly addressed by the educators or research, but it is probable students engaged informally with peers about their feelings towards nature and activities throughout the camp day. 

Figure 1

Camp Experience Mapped onto the Theory of Learning in Nature (Brody, 2005)

1. Physical (setting) 2. Personal (individual)  3. Social (shared)  4. Time (continuum) 
A. Acting Experience Sensing  Urban-based



Pre/post questions

Group Experience/Task

(e.g., Planting)

Camp Hours: 

M-F (8:30am-3:30pm)

B. Thinking Integration Knowledge  Inquiry-tasks outside

(Appendix A)


pre/post questions

Group Experience/Task

(e.g., inquiry activities)

C. Feeling Attitudes 



Affective Experience of Tasks Attitudes pre/post questions Continuous 


A total of 64 students ages 10 to 13 from a large southeastern metropolis in grades third through sixth participated in the week-long outdoor urban-based environmental education camp. On average, there were nine students in each week of the camp, but week five had no student consent. Nine students were excluded from analyses because of missing data or no consent, leaving a final number of 55. Demographics of students, including race and gender, can be found in Table 1. 

Table 1

Demographics of Students from Camp

Variable Count (%)
Asian 3 6%
Black 9 16%
Mixed 4 7%
White 39 71%
1 14 25%
2 7 13%
3 8 15%
4 9 16%
6 17 31%
Female 14 25%
Male 41 75%
Total 55 100%

Note. Students did not report ages or grades, but the camp typically served ages 8 to 12.


All students that participated in the summer camp were eligible to participate. Written consent/assent using the IRB approved forms were collected from parents and students on the first day of camp. At the beginning of the week (Monday) before the start of camp activities, students took the 15-question open-ended questionnaire related to their ECK, attitudes, and motivation for PEBs (See Appendix B). On the last day of camp (Friday), students would retake the same 15-question questionnaire. 


The measure used in this study was created by the study’s two researchers and was the same for both pre- and post-survey. Previous pilot testing of the survey questions was conducted the previous year at the same camp to ensure the quality of the questions being created. The 15-question survey consisted of all open-ended questions. This study used 10 of the questions which were relevant to the research questions. Five of the questions addressed students’ Environmental Content Knowledge (ECK), three of the questions addressed students’ environmental relationships, and the final two questions addressed students’ motivation for PEBs, one question at a micro-level (community) and one at a macro level (planet). Additional questions on the survey consisted of students’ demographics such as race and gender.


  The analyses behind this study involved a mixed-methods approach. Across both the quantitative and qualitative portions of the study interrater reliability was utilized to ensure the codes that emerged from the data were true to the data source. Any question left blank was considered a “no” response, or an “incorrect” answer.

ECK & Relationships. For all eight questions students were not required to write any elaborations (i.e., how or why), so quantifying the open-ended responses was deemed appropriate. The ECK questions assessed factual knowledge, and the relationship questions assessed the presence (or absence) of a connection to nature. The ECK responses were assessed using a grading rubric created by the researcher and a doctoral student with an educational background in ecology. The responses were coded as either correct (1) or incorrect (0), with some questions having multiple parts. There were a total of five questions assessed, allowing for a maximum of 11 points for ECK. The three environmental relationship questions were coded as either yes they have a connection/relation to the environment and nature (1), or no they have no connection/relation (0). Students’ scores across the five and three questions were averaged for an overall ECK and relationships score. Descriptive statistics of the scores were provided for each item for pre- and post-test (See Table 2). T-tests were used to test for statistically significant changes in students’ scores from pre- to post across all questions.

PEBs. The motivation for PEBs was asked across two questions to further explore students’ eco-character development (See Appendix B for questions), exploring both micro-level motivations (i.e., community) and macro-level motivations (i.e., Earth/planet). Because of the exploratory nature of this study and the elaboration students are asked to do on both responses (students were asked to explain why), I deemed a grounded approach for analysis as appropriate (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). An initial sentence-by-sentence open-coding approach was applied to each student s’ two responses to allow multiple codes per student to emerge. Fourteen unique themes emerged from the open-coding, such as “keep planet safe,” and “need it to survive.” An axial coding process was then used to group the open codes based on common characteristics such as “aesthetics,” “survival,” and “help nature.” All responses were then re-coded using the seven axial codes, and 100% agreement was met between the author and a doctoral student with an ecological background. The codes reflected students were identifying differing degrees of ecological connection, and they appeared to connect to a social motive framework (MacCrimmon & Messick, 1976). I then used a selective coding process to connect themes to either altruistic and self-interest purposes. The frequency of themes and example quotes for each theme for pre- and post-test can be found for each question in Table 3. Additionally, two word clouds were constructed to visually present which words across student responses were most and least common to describe the value for the community and planet.


ECK & Relationships

To address the research question, how does a weeklong community-based environmental education camp affect students’ eco-character development?, I first compared pre- and post-test scores for the quantitatively-driven questions. Across both ECK and environmental relationships, students’ scores on average increased over the week, and seven out of eight questions saw an increase in scores (See Table 2). Despite the 8% increase in students’ reporting environmental connection, there was not a statistically significant change from pre-test (M= .62, SD= .38) to post-test (M= .70, SD= .30); however, ECK scores saw a statistically significant change from pre-test (M= 1.33, SD= .47) to post-test (M= 1.81, SD= .40), t(54)= 8.28 , p < .001. This means that both Head and Heart dimensions of students’ eco-characters were increased by the outdoor camp experience, which is consistent with the cognitive and affective findings from other EE camp studies (e.g., Browne et al., 2011), but some dimensions of eco-character developments were significantly affected. 

Table 2

Changes in Students’ Environmental Knowledge (Head) and Relationships (Heart)

Pre Post
M SD Min-Max M SD Min-Max
Enviro. Content Knowledge


What is an Urban Forest? 0.51 0.50 0-1 0.96 0.19 0-1
Name three trees 3.25 0.93 0-4 2.78 0.53 1-3
Name 3 important reasons for trees 2.36 0.91 0-3 3.677 0.75 0-4
What is Canopy Cooling? 0.11 0.31 0-1 0.51 0.50 0-1
What is an Old Growth Forest? 0.44 0.76 0-2 0.91 0.91 0-2
Average ECK score 1.33 0.47 0-2.2 1.81*** 0.40 0-2.2
Enviro. Relationships


Do you have a connection to nature? 0.62 0.49 0-1 0.67 0.48 0-1
Do you relate to nature? 0.64 0.49 0-1 0.69 0.47 0-1
Are you a part of nature? 0.62 0.49 0-1 0.76 0.43 0-1
Average Attitudes Towards Nature 0.62 0.38 0-1 0.70 0.30 0-1

Note. N= 55. ECK items (N= 5); Connection items (N=3).

*** p < .001.


I then addressed the motivations for PEBs dimension of students’ eco-character development and reported the frequencies and example quotes of themes that emerged from the two PEB questions in Table 3. Interestingly, the themes that emerged for PEBs suggested students’ motivations for PEBs were on a spectrum of altruistic to more self-interest, consistent with early social motive frameworks (MacCrimmon & Messick, 1976). The altruistic reasons were to help nature, help others, promote change, and responsible obligation. The self-interest reasons were survival, aesthetic, and no value reported. These responses suggested students were motivated by their self-interest and needs. From pre to post-test, 10 additional students reported altruistic motivations for the community question but no additional students reported altruistic motives for the planet. This suggests that altruistic motivation towards the environment may be easier to foster in children at a community level than at a macro-level, and may be explained by the relevance of the community-based learning experiences from the camp (Sobel, 2003; Sobel, 2005).

Table 3

Themes for Pro-Environmental Behavior Motivations (Hand & Feet)

Community (Micro) Planet (Macro)
Social Motives Specific Motives Pre

# (%)


# (%)


# (%)


# (%)

Example Quotes
Altruistic Help Nature 1 (2%) 8 (15%) 1 (2%) “We want the world to be a cleaner and better place.”
Help Others 1 (2%) 5 (10%) “Cause some don’t  have what they need.”
Promote Change 0 (0%) 6 (11%) 5 (9%) 4 (7%) “If we all help we can make a big difference.”
Responsible Obligation 18 (33%) 17 (31%) 10 (18%) 16 (29%) “Our planet depends on us to care for it…”
Self-Interest Survival 4 (7%) 4 (7%) 15 (27%) 20 (36%) “If we did not we would be dead.”
Aesthetic 2 (4%) 4 (7%) 4 (7%) 9 (16%) “If you don’t it won’t be as beautiful.”
No/No Response 29 (53%) 10 (18%) 21 (38%) 5 (9%) “I’ll sound like a hippie.”

Note. Total number of students = 55. Each student only reported one theme. Altruistic Themes: Symbiotic, Promote change, & Help nature/others. Self-interest Themes: Survival, Obligation, Aesthetic.

The themes that emerged also reflected some varying level of ecological reasoning (Nisbet & Zelenski, 2013; Pasca et al., 2017), such as students being cognizant of their biological relationship and dependence on the environment (i.e., higher-level ecological thinking), to students just enjoying nature for its beauty (i.e., no ecological thinking). For example, one student said, “the environment gives us shade, food, wood, oxygen, etc., so it’s fair to give them help too,” and another student said, “if we want our species to survive we must protect the earth.” These students who reported promote change, responsible obligation, and survival as reasons to care for the planet or community were acknowledging a symbiotic relationship between the actions and health of people and the health of the environment. The themes help nature and help others were considered lower-level ecological thinking because they acknowledged the impact of an action on the environment but failed to connect to the larger ecological system. For example, one student said, “I think it is a healthy lifestyle” and another said, “if you give back to the community, it feels good to help.” Aesthetic reasons (and no responses) were considered no ecological thinking levels because they only acknowledged the affective enjoyment humans benefit from the environment and did not connect it to action or ecological systems. For example, one student said, “it makes our community beautiful and happy,” and another said, “you don’t want the place you live in dirty and ugly.” Below in Figure 3 differences in how students described the importance of community and planet care were visualized using word clouds.

Figure 2

Word Clouds of Students’ Values for Caring for the Community and Planet Pre and Post Camp


Note. The figure includes words students used to describe their perceived importance of the community (left) and planet (right). The words used during pre-surveys are presented on the top, and the post-survey words are on the bottom. 

The most notable differences across the pre- and post-test responses is the change in the portion of students responding no or leaving a question blank, suggesting that the camp helped them develop some level of ecological reasoning around the relationship between their behaviors (Hand & Feet) and the impact on their community and planet. The word clouds also highlight notable similarities differences in how students’ described the importance of community and planet care from pre to post-test. Commonalities across the micro and macro levels included survival descriptors, such as “air” and “alive,” and sustainability descriptors, such as “recycling” and “pollution.” One of the large differences between community and planet I did find was in the use of connective language such as words “give,” “make,” “part,” and “place.” The planet question prompted more descriptors around natural resources such as “water” and “trees.” The language difference in how students describe community and planet values are suggestive that many students perceived humans to be more removed from the planet/environmental world (i.e., lower ecological reasoning), but more connection is perceived when thinking about the community. Overall, findings suggest weeklong exposure to new local outdoor experiences and activities have impacted students’ perspectives about their relationship to their micro (community) and macro (planet) environments but had a greater impact on students’ perceptions at the community level.


The goal of this exploratory study was to investigate whether participation in a weeklong day place-based environmental education camp had any effect on students’ eco-character development. This investigation demonstrates how the unique characteristics of community- and inquiry-based setting can promote learning and character development for the environment in students based in an urban area. The findings suggest that children situated in urban communities can still gain knowledge about the environment that associates with their geographic location and community, consistent with other studies on environmental education camps finding that outdoor-based education assisted in students’ developing more of a conceptual understanding of environmental knowledge (Powers, 2004). I believe the increase in post-test scores are a result of students not knowing urban-based environmental concepts, before the camp, but the urban-focused activities and curriculum made the content taught meaningful to the city they live in. This supports the notion that positive learning outcomes can come from real-world and meaningful experiences framed in place-based education (e.g., Sobel, 2005; Stern et al., 2008).

Additionally, the findings show that students can increase their relationships with nature even if not significantly, which leads to a more sustainable and conservationist lifestyle (Frantz & Mayer, 2013). The lack of significance could be attributed to the higher baseline scores for environmental relationships students had at pre-test, supporting the notion that urban-based students do not have less of a connection to nature than more rural students or that students with EE interests self-selected into the camp. I believe the small increase in attitude scores was from students not previously considered themselves and nature from an ecological perspective, and the direct experiences with nature from camp provided a new perspective for students (Smith & Williams, 1999). Additionally, one prior study has found that indirect experiences with nature (e.g., workshop) leads to greater EE content knowledge than attitude change, but direct experiences with nature (e.g., hands-on activities in the field) increase both content knowledge and attitudes equally (Duerden & Witt, 2010). This suggests that the level or degree of structure of the curriculum (i.e., inquiry-based activities/non-formal) and the camp context (i.e., indoors vs. outdoors) makes a difference in the type of cognitive and affective processes that are promoted in children. More attention is needed from researchers on how different learning processes are engaged by students across informal and non-formal contexts compared to formal, and best practices for promoting processes that support positive character development in these non-formal environments.

In addition to the attitudes having reflected ecological reasoning, some students also responded to the PEB questions with higher-level ecological thinking in mind. Interestingly, these students were the ones who also had more altruistic motivations, as opposed to students with lower-level ecological thinking who had greater self-interest motivations. The results suggested that even in younger children there is the presence of a duality between altruistic and self-interest motivations for why people should engage in PEBs. More research is needed to understand the relationship between increased ecological reasoning, types of social motivates, and the impact they have on the positive and negative behaviors of people. 

This study provides strong evidence from a single case an outdoor urban-based EE camp that place- and inquiry-based learning are effective contexts for eco-character development in children, from a three-dimensional perspective. Students do not necessarily need formal education or structured activities to develop virtues that will support an understanding and greater connection to nature. Implications for educators include and understanding that the context matters down to a micro-level when teaching students about EE topics, and how different learning structures (e.g., formal vs. informal) promotes different levels of social motivations. Both context and structure contribute to student engagement, which has broader implications on learning and sustained interest. Considering the sustained interest in EE is important for raising eco-conscious individuals, EE educators should reflect on what structures and practices are best to sustain environmental engagement.


Limitations and Future Work

The findings from this exploration are limited due to the small sample size and lack of a control group. Specifically, the number of questions collected in the full pre- and post-test survey (N = 15), and a sample size of 55 was less than ideal to reach statistical power. This could be a contributing factor as to why only Head, and not Heart as well, had significant differences from pre- to post-test. Changing the format of the survey away from open-ended responses (e.g., using multiple-choice) could also decrease the number of no responses seen in the pre-test. These limitations are commonly found when dealing with informal learning environments, as well as with younger children; however, educators and researchers should be cautious about over formalizing informal and non-formal learning environments through tasks that can be perceived as too “School-like.” Additionally, assessing students on prior experiences and exposure to nature would be useful in further exposing students’ understanding of their relationship to the environment. 

Future studies should consider larger samples of students and differentiating performance measures. Other avenues of future research should consider exploring the directional relationship between ECK and relationships for positive eco-character development, as well as using experimental designs to truly test different influences of these variables. This would allow researchers to explore the degree to which these factors contribute to creating more environmentally responsible citizens. 

Appendix A

Below is a list of example weekly inquiry activities with the associated criteria & skills

  Activity Science Criteria Inquiry Skill(s)
Monday Scientific Investigation   Nature of Science Observation, inference
Gravel Activity PBL  Process of science, science is creative Hypothesis, evidence, communicating
Urban Heat Island  Science Changes Measuring, models, formulating models
Canopy Cooling  Science Changes Measuring, formulating models
Tree ID  Science Encompasses other Disciplines Observing, classifying, formulating models
Tuesday Air Flow  Science Changes Hypothesis, evidence, experimenting, formulating models
Light Experiment Science Changes Hypothesis, evidence, experimenting, inference, measuring
Leaf ID  science encompasses the other disciplines Observing, classifying, formulating models
Erosion Activity  Science Changes Observing, measuring, controlling variables, experimenting, formulating models, hypothesis
Gravel PBL  Process of science, Science is creative Inference, evidence, communicating, formulating models
Wednesday Permeable/non-permeable Surfaces Science Changes Prediction, experimentation, observing, measuring, evidence
Urban Heat Island (tie in)  Science is a process,  Inference, communicating
Plant Parts & Pollinators  Science is Creative Formulating Models
Gravel PBL   Process of science, science is creative Inference, evidence, communicating, formulating models
Thursday Gravel PBL   Process of science, science is creative Inference, evidence, communicating, formulating models
Presentations  Science is socially constructed Communicating, defining operationally
Friday Urban Heat Island Interpretation Art Science is Creative Communicating, formulating models
Invasive Species Science encompasses the other disciplines Observing, classifying

Appendix B

  1. What is an Urban Forest?
  2. Name three types of trees, and where you learned them.
  3. Name five reasons trees are important.
  4. What is the Canopy Cooling Effect?
  5. What is the difference between a Prairie and an Old Growth Forest?
  6. Name a time you felt closest to nature.
  7. Use five words to describe nature.
  8. Do you relate to nature? If so, how?
  9. Do you feel like a part of nature? If so, how?
  10. What does environmental stewardship mean?
  11. Do you feel like a scientist? Why?
  12. Do you believe it is important to help and give back to your community? Why?
  13. Do you believe it’s important to take care of your planet? Why?
  14. Do you believe collaboration is the key to success? Why?
  15. Do you feel like a leader? Why?


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