Importance of Early Years of Life in Development

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Early years of life are regarded as the sensitive period in which human development reaches its optimal stage (Morrison, 2001; Mustard, 2000). The rationale supporting this claim is the recent brain research and research on cognitive development referring critical importance of early years to start learning in life (Nuthbrown, 2006; Rushton & Rushton, 2008). Value of early years on human development was revealed in the research area of early childhood education more than enough (Kagıtcibasi, Sunar, Bekman & Cemalciler, 2005; Rushton & Larkin, 2001; Rutter , 2002).

In a similar way, young children are in a receptive period for personality development (Keenan & Evans, 2009). Individuals develop their basic values, attitudes, skills, behaviors and habits, in early years of life, which may be long lasting. Since early childhood education consists of bases for intellectual, psychological, emotional, social and physical development and lifelong learning, it has an enormous potential in fostering values, attitudes, skills and behaviors that have key role in preventing environmental problems (Samuelsson & Kaga¸2008).

In the recent years, environmental problems have become a great threat not only for people but also for the entire planet. Some of the environmental problems include but not limited to global warming, climate change, ozone depletion, habitat degradation, species extinction, loss of biodiversity, and population growth. Human activities are regarded as the main cause of these environmental problems that have become a serious threat for both human being and all species by endangering quality of life and corrupting environmental stability (UNESCO, 1977).

Several environmental problems and their negative outcomes have been realized by the nations and as a result many national and international conferences have been held and many treaties were concluded all over the world. Beginning from 1948, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Conference summoned in Paris, to 2003 The Kiev Environment for Europe Conference, environmental education was highlighted as the key element to protect environment and to prevent environmental problems (Palmer, 1998; Scoullus & Malotidi, 2004). Moreover, in the Tbilisi Conference it was declared that environmental education should be integrated into all levels of formal education beginning from early childhood (UNESCO, 1977).

The rationale for environmental education in early years was based on two major premises (Wilson, 1996). The first and foremost, base for environmental education in the early childhood is the value of interaction between natural environment and young children. Children' earlier and direct experiences with nature enhance their learning process and quality of life (Davis, 1998). Children not only gain a sense of wonder but also learn by doing happily in natural environment. Since Reggio Emilia approach regarded environment as third teacher, it should be underlined that connections with environment increase children's wonder, interest, curiosity and enjoyment about nature as well as provide a variety of opportunity for children to force their learning process (Wilson, 1996; Didonet, 2008).

The next claim supporting the idea of environmental education in early childhood was based on critical importance of early years. Early childhood is a sensitive period to adopt and enhance a sense of caring for environmental issues. Particularly, preschool years are the time that children develop environmental attitudes (Biriukova, 2005) as well as environmental attitudes formed during early years are life- long and have resistant to change (Nikolaeva, 2008). Hence, early years of life should be regarded as having critical importance to gain environmental attitudes and environmental education in early childhood is the way of fostering environmental attitudes of children (Basile, 2000). Therefore, as Didonet (2008) concluded:

If we desire that adults, in the next generation, respect nature and care for the planet, it is important to include now, in the early childhood education curriculum or program the study of nature, and the interdependence between human beings and the environment. (p. 26)

This premise of early childhood environmental education is the rationale for the current study. As mentioned, the structure of environmental attitudes built in the early years is the strong and permanent roots for one's entire life (Biriukova, 2005). Miller and Levine (1996) defined environmental attitude as "evaluative tendency regarding some feature of the environment and can typically be phrased in terms of like and dislike or favor and disfavor" (p. 70). According to Thompson and Barton (1994), two different bases underlie environmental attitudes: ecocentric and anthropocentric. Ecocentric attitudes value nature for its own sake and refer to empathy with nature while anthropocentric attitudes advocate protection of environment in order to maintain and enhance human life. To illustrate, having respect to animals since they are important and beautiful components of world is an example of ecocentric attitudes. However, if the underlying reason of respecting animals is to derive benefit from them refers anthropocentric one. In this regard, Thompson and Barton (1994) emphasized that ecocentric- anthropocentric bases are the predictors of environmental behavior. As referred by Fishben and Ajzen (1975), attitudes have ability to predict behavioral intentions; Thompson and Barton (1994) asserted that ecocentric individuals are more likely to behave in a environmentally- friendly way supporting environment while anthropocentric individuals are less likely in a way supporting environment unless existence of a threat for human centered values. In this respect, early childhood hold key for environmental behaviors as early years are receptive for the creation of ecocentric environmental attitudes (Ajzen, 2001; Biriukova, 2005; Grodzinska- Jurczak, Stepska, Nieszporek & Bryda, 2006). What is more, when it was declared that environmental education aims to bring up citizens who adapt environmentally friendly behaviors (UNESCO, 1975) attitudes toward environmental issues become critically important in the early years of life (Davis, 2008).

Despite given emphasis on environmental attitudes research in early childhood education, there is little evidence to clue preschool children's attitudes toward environmental issues. Furthermore, in the literature there is a gap to investigate factors that affects preschool children's attitudes towards environmental issues. Many factors were reported to affect environmental attitudes of preschool children and gender differences was most frequently referred one. In spite of gender insignificance, this study intended to research gender impact by the means of in depth investigation on preschool children's attitudes towards environmental issues. In particular, the current study targets to explore preschool children's environmental attitudes based on ecocentric and anthropocentric approaches and to find out the effect of gender on children's attitudes towards environmental issues.

1.2. Statement of the Problem

Despite the fact that early childhood education researchers have not been interested in environmental issues and in a similar way environmental education researchers have not extensively considered preschool children as participants of a sustainable society, early childhood education has a fundamental role in achieving goals of environmental education in terms of upbringing ecocentric attitudes towards environmental issues. (Davis, 2009; Siraj, 2009). The preliminary survey (1996- 2007) of a number of international research journals in early childhood education and environmental education revealed that fewer than 5 % articles was published over a 12- year period underlying absence of studies in this research area (Davis, 2009). The current research aimed to make a contribution to the early childhood environmental education research area describing preschool children's attitudes towards environmental issues and to inspire researchers to produce a background for environmental education in early childhood.

1.3. Purpose and Significance

This study intended to describe preschool children's attitudes towards environmental issues by the means of one to one interviews. Also, this research aimed to examine effect of gender on preschool children's environmental attitudes. Children's Attitudes towards Environment Scale- Preschool Version (CATES- PV) was utilized to develop interview protocol. In this scope, environmental issues were regarded as consumption patterns, environmental protection, recycling and reusing and living habits. In order to grasp children's attitudes towards these environmental issues, the specific research questions which were tested are described as following:

What are preschool children's attitudes towards environmental issues?

What are preschool children's attitudes towards consumption patterns?

What are preschool children's attitudes towards environmental protection?

What are preschool children's attitudes towards recycling and reusing?

What are preschool children's attitudes towards living habits?

What is effect of gender on children's attitudes towards environmental issues?

Investigation of preschool children's attitudes toward environmental issues is very significant since environmental attitudes develop during early years and resistant to change in life- long process. Explanations of these research questions also reveal the meaning of attachment between nature and young children. Since having close interaction with nature enhances children's healthy psychosocial development and encourages children to develop ecocentric attitudes towards environmental issues. Investigation of children's existing attitudes toward environment is regarded as valuable to plan the way which may support children to interact with nature. Moreover, this research guide educators how to encourage young children to attain ecocentric attitudes toward environmental issues. Finally, early childhood education program administered in Turkey is very appropriate to integrate environmental issues into education process (Ministry of National Education, 2006). However, there was little emphasizing on environmental issues. Thereby, it is believed the findings of the current study also made a contribution to existing early childhood education program in terms of environmental education.

1.4. Definition of Important Terms

The following terms need to be defined for the purpose of the study:

Environmental Attitudes: Environmental attitudes refer to evaluative tendency regarding some feature of the environment and can typically be phrased in terms of like and dislike or favor and disfavor (Miller, 1996).

Ecocentric Attitudes: Ecocentric attitudes mean to value nature for its own sake (Thompson& Barton 1994).

Anthropocentric Attitudes: Anthropocentric attitudes mean to value nature because of material or physical benefits it can provide for humans (Thompson& Barton, 1994).

Consumption Patterns: The combination of qualities, quantities, acts and tendencies characterizing a community or human group's use of resources for survival, comfort and enjoyment (UNEP, 1992). In the current study, consumption patterns referred to saving water, paper and electricity.

Environmental Protection: Environmental protection is a practice of protecting the environment, on individual, organizational or governmental level, for the benefit of the natural environment and (or) humans (UNEP, 1992). In the current research, environmental protection referred protection of animals, plants and environmental surroundings.

Recycling and Reusing: Recycling involves processing used materials into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air pollution (from incineration) and water pollution (from land filling) by reducing the need for "conventional" waste disposal, and lower greenhouse gas emissions as compared to virgin production (UNEP, 1992). In this study recycling and reusing was sketched by reusing of old materials, using recycling bin and grouping recyclable materials.

Living Habits: A way of life or style of living that reflects the attitudes and values of a person or group (UNEP, 1992). In this study living habits described by playground and residence preferences as well as environmental pollution.