The Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship: Promoting Young People’s Well-Being through a Sustainability Framework in Ontario, Canada


Elliott, P. and Rodenburg, J. (2019), "The Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship: Promoting Young People’s Well-Being through a Sustainability Framework in Ontario, Canada", Savelyeva, T., Lee, S.W. and Banack, H. (Ed.) SDG3 – Good Health and Wellbeing: Re-Calibrating the SDG Agenda: Concise Guides to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (Concise Guides to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 11-27.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © Selection and editorial matter Tamara Savelyeva, Stephanie W. Lee and Hartley Banack. Published under exclusive licence by Emerald Publishing Limited, 2019. Individual chapters Emerald Publishing Limited.

Healthy, sustainable ecosystems support healthy communities in which individuals can thrive. As importantly, healthy individuals can engage in actions that support and enhance ecosystems so that all living things can thrive. However, by adopting a modern, western lifestyle an increasing number of young people are spending less time outdoors, less time being physically active and more time in front of screens. Consequently, they are becoming progressively more disconnected from the natural world. As children become cocooned in a world of pixels, there is the danger that their appreciation of the interconnectedness of nature and their motivation to protect the living systems that nurture and sustain us all, is lost.

2.1 Children’S Health

Several studies document increasing childhood mental health concerns, with rising levels of anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anti-social behaviour reported (Costello, Musrillo, Erkanli, Keeler, & Angold, 2003; Olfson, Druss, & Marcus, 2015; Twenge, Gentile, DeWall, Lacefield, & Schultz, 2010; Visser, Bitsko, Danileson, Perou, & Blumberg, 2010). In the developed world, and much of the developing world, there is also concern about unprecedented levels of childhood obesity (NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, 2017). This is, in part, a result of dietary changes; the health risks associated with the consumption of processed foods (Fiolet et al., 2018; Monteiro et al., 2017) and the adoption of western eating habits in increasingly affluent sectors of the developing world (Wiggins & Keats, 2017). In parallel, there is also evidence that children in the developed world are adopting a more sedentary, indoor lifestyle. An average child may spend more than seven hours per day looking at some form of screen – smartphone, tablet, computer or television – but less than 20 minutes per day engaged in active, outdoor play (Leatherdale & Ahmed, 2011; ParticipACTION, 2015). Evidence is also emerging that too much time spent engaging with social media is exacerbating the mental health risks facing young people (Richards, Caldwell, & Go, 2015). When the impact of some of these trends are considered together, it is not surprising there is concern that today’s children may be the first in many generations to have a life expectancy less than that of their parents (NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, 2017).

What can a community do to address and remedy this situation? How can it ensure that its children are given the opportunities they need to grow up healthy, happy, and engaged as stewards to the environment? How can we ensure ‘wellbeing, for all, forever’ (Hopkins, 2013, p. 125)?

2.2 Spending Time in Nature

Time spent in nature during childhood appears to have numerous health benefits (e.g. Charles & Loge, 2012). For instance, there is evidence it reduces stress levels, improves physical and mental health, stimulates creativity, generates a more robust self-esteem and enhances co-operation, collaboration and self-regulation (D’Amore, Charles, & Louv, 2015; Kuo & Taylor, 2004; Swarbrick, Eastwood, & Tutton, 2004). In his influential book Last Child in the Woods, Louv (2005) contends that contact with nature (or as he calls it – ‘Vitamin N’) is an essential part of healthy childhood development. If the health benefits are considered in isolation, there is a strong case to be made for ensuring that children have opportunities to experience nature first-hand, but there is also evidence that regular exposure to nature is the single most important factor in fostering care and concern for the environment (Palmer, Suggate, Robottom, & Hart, 1999). Chawla (2007) presents evidence that direct experience of the natural world, using all five of our senses, may be critically important in fostering a desire to care and advocate for it. Yet despite evidence supporting the health claims for time spent in nature and its value in promoting care for the environment, young people are becoming more isolated from the natural world. This is a genuine cause for concern.

2.2.1 The Challenge

We stand at a crossroads for humanity and all other species on the planet. The reality is that we face a set of formidable challenges the like of which have never been seen before and that threaten the web of life upon which our well-being depends. The biodiversity that feeds us, cleans the air and water, provides a source of medicines and stabilises habitats in severe crisis (Monastersky, 2014). Despite the urgency of the environmental challenges facing the planet, the average child in the developed world is inundated with hundreds of advertising messages per day, urging them to buy more and consume more: habits that only serve to exacerbate the environmental problems and that in themselves provide only a fleeting feeling of pleasure (O’Brien, 2016). Children, as well as adults, receive conflicting messages: ‘the earth is in trouble and we need to act now’ and ‘go ahead and consume more stuff!’ It is difficult for anyone, particularly children, to reconcile these messages, and the cumulative effect is likely to be a generation burdened with a sense of confusion and hopelessness. The easy option then becomes one of inaction and denial with the outcome that people continue behaving as if nothing is wrong. Sadly, young people growing up today have inherited a set of problems from their parents and previous generations that, if they think about them at all, must seem daunting, overwhelming, and at times hopeless (Sobel, 1996). Among the dangers is that children’s well-being is at risk because of rising levels of stress and anxiety. What can be done to alleviate the situation? How can a sense of hope be engendered without denying the problems? Our Response to the Challenge

We have been working with a community group whose chosen task is to envisage a form of environmental and sustainability education that inspires and equips young people to help tackle the challenges, rather than ignore them, while at the same time providing the health benefits of a rich and sustained connection with nature. This is a call for all of us – educators, parents, community leaders and youth groups alike – to be collectively involved in fostering stewardship. Stewardship education at its best is about engaging in simple acts of hope. It is a proactive undertaking that can be nurtured and cultivated in all children from birth to adulthood. Effective stewardship leads to the improved health and wellbeing not only of each of us, but also of our communities and the natural world of which we are a part.

2.2.2 Solutions

Calls have been made for a radical reform of the education system to address the pressing issues facing the health of the planet and children’s health (e.g. Drake, 2014; Hopkins, 2013; O’Brien & Howard, 2016). O’Brien and Howard (2016) make the case for establishing ‘living schools’; schools that prioritise sustainability and well-being as their central educational rationale. They envision schools that cultivate a deep sense of place; compassion towards fellow human beings, other organisms (the ‘more-than-human’) and the planet; and that do so by incorporating Indigenous teachings. The living school concept encourages contact with the world through project-based learning. Locally this should include involvement of the community because, while the formal education system can do much to address issues of well-being as they relate to children’s relationship with the planet, it is unreasonable to expect schools to bear all of the responsibility. While parents and communities have largely contracted out the education of their children to the school system, it is surely time to encourage parents and other caregivers and the wider community to play a more active role, in effect, encouraging schools to adopt the living school’s philosophy. The World Health Organisation recognised this when they recommended that schools nurture community links in their quest to become Health Promoting Schools (World Health Organisation, 2009). There is also increasing recognition that parents and community partners beyond schools have a significant part to play in nurturing young people and helping them grow into happy and healthy stewards of the environment. Various initiatives, many in response to Louv’s work (2005) have been launched to encourage those responsible for children to ensure that they gain benefits from outdoor play and connections with nature. Several years ago the National Trust, a UK-based charity and the country’s largest private landowner, launched ‘50 things to do before you are 11¾’ with the aim of encouraging children visiting their sites to explore, interact with nature and develop their imagination ( This initiative served as an inspiration for similar ideas such as the Ontario Children’s Outdoor Charter ( that identifies a range of outdoor experiences that children growing up in the province should have an opportunity to engage in. While such initiatives are inspiring and worthwhile, what seems to be lacking is a concerted effort by all stakeholders – parents, grandparents, schools, community groups, health professionals, municipalities, businesses and non-governmental organisations alike – to collaborate in the work of fostering the development of children’s engagement with and care for nature, both for the health of young people themselves and the environment. Education for sustainability provides wonderful opportunities for communities to unite in efforts to ensure the well-being of citizens through culturally enriching projects that nurture the young people inheriting responsibility for ecosystems. Our group is trying to realise such an opportunity.

2.2.3 A Vision

Citizens who care for the earth today lay the foundation to become the caring ancestors of tomorrow. The authors are participants in a project that has developed a framework whose aim is to promote whole community collaboration at every age and stage of a child’s development, with the explicit aim of raising environmentally engaged citizens. The project has involved a wide range of educators and community groups in the city of Peterborough. Our Community

Peterborough is a city of a little over 80,000 people in the largely rural county of Peterborough, approximately 140 km from Toronto in the Canadian province of Ontario. This region is part of the traditional territory of the Michi Zaagiik Anishnaabeg people on land recognised by the Williams Treaty. In 2016 the region that includes Peterborough was recognised by UNESCO as a Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development. This designation was made in recognition of the many organisations within the area that are working to support a transition to a sustainable community. Among the organisations are the local First Nations communities (Curve Lake First Nation, Hiawatha First Nation and Alderville First Nation); local district school boards (Kawartha Pine Ridge, Peterborough Victoria Northumberland Clarington and Trillium Lakelands); a university (Trent); a community college (Sir Sandford Fleming); community organisations promoting sustainable practice (Peterborough GreenUp, For Our Grandchildren, Sustainable Peterborough); and an outdoor and environmental education centre (Camp Kawartha). For a relatively small city there are therefore several organisations with involvement in environmental and sustainability education. The time was right to launch a framework that would enable these organisations, in collaboration with city administrations, to ensure that children growing up in the region receive opportunities to ensure that they benefit from the wellbeing that comes from outdoor activity and engagement with their natural environment. This would also benefit the region, and ultimately the earth and all its inhabitants, by nurturing citizens who are motivated to adopt and promote sustainable life styles.

2.3 Developing the Framework

Initially, in 2015, the authors joined a group of fellow educators in Peterborough gathered to identify ways in which collaboration can deliver more comprehensive environmental programming across sectors. It was recognised that, while there were innovative environmental initiatives being delivered by several local organisations, there was little connectivity between them, so programmes tended to be siloed and independent of each other. We identified the need for an overarching framework to guide the strategic delivery of outdoor and nature experiences through each stage of a child’s development. Statistics provided by Peterborough’s ‘Vital Signs’ community profile (Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough, 2016) revealed that only 7% of local children, and 4% of youth were getting the recommended levels of physical activity and that Peterborough is below provincial and national averages in access to green spaces within 10 minutes of home. Local residents’ self-assessment of mental health is also lower and dropping faster than provincial averages. Alarmed by these facts, the group’s resolve strengthened to envision a more cohesive way to support the creation of a healthier, more environmentally conscious community.

2.3.1 Moving Forward

In time a stakeholder’s committee consisting of K-12 educators, professors, Indigenous leaders, public health officials and conservationists was formed and began to research best practices in environmental education, healthy childhood development and stewardship education. Funding was obtained to appoint a project coordinator. Using the model of environmental sensitivity research (Chawla, 1998), the coordinator and other committee members interviewed eighty community leaders with professed interest in the environment. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to determine if memorable childhood experiences had influenced these leaders to care about and advocate for the natural world and, if so, what the nature of those experiences were. The interviews probed how people demonstrating a deep and abiding love for the earth came to develop an ethic of care and concern for the environment. What seminal childhood experiences motivated them to undertake work in the environmental field? Each interviewee was asked a set of standard questions that explored their childhood experiences in the natural world and their views on how environmental and sustainability education should occur throughout the ages and stages of a child’s life:

  • (1)

    How would you rate your interest in the environment and environmental issues (low, moderate, high, very high)? Can you briefly explain why you have this level of interest?

  • (2)

    Would you briefly summarise your professional background (and personal interests?).

  • (3)

    What experiences, if any, did you have as a child or youth that were important in creating your interest in the environment, and at what age did they occur?

  • (4)

    Children respond to the environment in different ways, depending on their age. What opportunities and experiences do you believe are most important in fostering future stewardship of the environment in our community at these stages of life:

    • (a)

      Preschool children.

    • (b)

      Young elementary aged children (K to grade 2).

    • (c)

      Middle aged elementary children (grades 3–6).;

    • (d)

      Older elementary children (grades 7 and 8).

    • (e)

      Secondary students (grades 9–12).

  • (5)

    Can you suggest any ways in which our community could more effectively raise future stewards? Do you know of any unique initiatives going on in our community that are helping achieve this?

  • (6)

    To what extent is it our community’s responsibility to foster stewardship in our children and youth?

Interviews lasted between 45 minutes and an hour and a half. By combining the findings from the interviews with the results of the meta-research, the group identified principles and themes that could provide a foundation for a workable stewardship framework for the community. Definitions

As work on the framework progressed, the committee came to realise that there are philosophical challenges associated with the term ‘stewardship’. For some of the First Nations’ educators consulted, ‘stewardship’ implied entitlement or dominion over the earth. They preferred the term ‘kinship’, believing it to exemplify the idea of ‘Nwikiikaanigana’(an Anishinaabe word roughly meaning ‘all my relations’). In other words, from an Indigenous perspective, all of life is part of one, interconnected family. The committee decided to incorporate this concept in the project, naming it ‘The Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship’ and further refining the intended meaning of the term stewardship. The committee defined stewardship as ‘a sense of connection to, caring about and responsibility for each other and the natural world’ (Dueck & Rodenburg, 2017, p. 5). In this sense, stewardship involves personal action to enhance the well-being of both human and natural communities. As a steward, being ‘healthy’ is not simply about attending to one’s own personal physical and mental health, it also means working towards fostering healthy communities who live in healthy ecosystems, on a healthy planet. Education for stewardship and kinship involves providing children with the right tools and experiences at every age to help them come to know, respect, protect and love (as we would for any relation) the very life systems that nurture us all. Principles

The Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship framework is designed around clearly articulated principles and themes with associated landmarks (or goals) we recommend every child be given the opportunity to attain. The principles began to emerge from the literature-based research and were further validated by the interview responses. They can be summarised as follows: enriching and deepening the relationship between children and the natural world; developing age-appropriate action skills to protect the local environment; recognising the interdependency of humans and the natural world; and protecting and enhancing the integrity of living and non-living systems. A number of stewardship themes also emerged from the interviews and literature review linked to children’s developmental stages. The principles, themes and potential opportunities for each age group are carefully matched with the developmental needs and abilities of children and youth as they grow from birth to adulthood (Table 1). The pathway also suggests local resources that are available to help support the realisation of each opportunity.

Table 1.

Examples of the Core Stewardship Principles from the Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship Framework.

Age Group Core Stewardship Principle
Birth to Age 5 Regular visits to the same green spaces. Encourage exploration and engagement.
Promote positive interactions with animals.
Facilitate sensory exploration.
Encourage a sense of awe and wonder for nature.
Develop empathy by watching and caring for living things.
Engage in imaginative nature play.
Explore nature stories, pictures, songs and games.
Ages 6–10 Promote artistic expression for the natural world.
Celebrate seasons and seasonal change.
Promote the concept that a community consists of other living things as well as people.
Understand the essential role of energy in our lives.
Develop more complex outdoor skills.
Explore human impacts on the environment by planning and implementing community projects.
Expand understanding of the relationships between living things and their habitats.
Ages 11–17 Develop a sense of hope, agency and empowerment through collective action.
Explore tools for monitoring ecosystem health to deepen understanding of human/environmental interactions.
Expand understanding of sustainable lifestyles.
Explore the potential for people to have positive impacts on the environment.
Expand outdoor skills through recreation and survival skills.
Explore and respond to local social and environmental issues.
Foster a sense of collective responsibility through identifying and seeking solutions to local environmental issues.
Engage in experiential learning of a local issue of social/environmental justice.
Explore and develop bio-centric views of the world.

2.3.2 Themes of Stewardship Tend and Care

For children to develop a healthy relationship with themselves, other people and other life forms, they need to practice the act of caring. Caring involves showing empathy and compassion and requires us to imagine what life must be like from another being’s point of view. This then leads to the idea of reciprocity and from reciprocity emerges respect, a sense of responsibility, and in some cases a desire to take action because one cares (Noddings, 1984). These four ‘Rs’ – responsibility, respect, reciprocity, and relationship happen to be central to the Anishinaabe teachings of this region. Wonder

The motivation to learn often stems from a child’s curiosity. In the natural world such curiosity can be piqued by a sense of wonder. The adults that children interact with can play a crucial role in validating that response, by sharing and reacting appropriately to a child’s interest and enthusiasm. Sense of Place

Part of developing a sense of self-identity and self-worth comes from the comfort that belonging to a familiar place brings. Spending sufficient time outdoors in the same place allows a child to become deeply familiar and connected to that space, enabling them to develop a sense of belonging (Ardoin, 2006; Gill, 2014). Children need plenty of time to develop such deep attachments to place (Gruenewald, 2003). The community leaders interviewed for this project almost all referred to the significance of natural places from their childhood that they had grown to know and love. Interconnectedness

People need to understand that we all live in and are dependent upon the biosphere, using the same air and water, and consuming nutrients that have been used by others and recycled for eons. There are many ways in which children can benefit from the opportunity to learn about kinship and how our lives connect to those of all humans and other living things (Chawla, 2015). Understanding that we are all part of a community that extends far beyond our own friends, family and acquaintances to the other living organisms and non-living systems that support us all is an essential attribute of stewardship. Mentor Support

A theme that emerged from our meta-research (e.g. Chawla, 2007, 2009; Louv, 2005) and interviews with community leaders is the value of a caring mentor and the central role they can play in nurturing the development of environmental stewards. In the case of young children this is often a close relative who takes the time to explore together with the child and share the delights of discovery (Wilson, 2008). As they grow older, a young person’s mentor may be a teacher or a youth leader whose enthusiasm for and knowledge of the natural world inspires. Explore and Discover

Community leaders interviewed as part of this project recalled ‘free range’ time they enjoyed as children that allowed them to explore their neighbourhood and develop a deep sense of place. This aligns with the views of others (e.g. Gruenewald, 2003; Wilson, 2008) that time and opportunities to explore nearby natural places appear to be a crucial element in the development of a child’s attributes of stewardship. Time for play and exploration in nature can also foster a child’s initiative, independence, creativity and resilience (Chawla, 2015; Gill, 2014). Engage in Action

The ultimate measure of success in the development of stewardship is when a young person moves beyond simply knowing and caring about the natural world to the point where they are prepared to take action. This can manifest itself in many different ways because everyone, irrespective of their age or ability, can do something positive for the environment. A sense of agency can be nurtured by developing practical skills and, for example, showing children how to: garden, build bird and bat boxes, care for a natural area, reduce their consumption, or write to a politician about an issue of concern. These are empowering actions that enable young people to take positive steps to enhance or protect the environment. At a personal level, action helps to develop positive mental attributes such as a sense of self-worth as they contribute to their community. Promoting agency through positive actions activates a sense of hope (Kelsey, 2016).

Fostering qualities of stewardship and kinship is envisaged as a collective undertaking; one that can be implemented in any jurisdiction, anywhere. The specific resources and opportunities available will vary with location and may be very limited in some highly urbanised environments, but the basic principles are universally applicable. Beginning with the early years, educators and other stakeholders can start by building a sense of wonder and awe for nearby nature. They can provide rich experiences by revisiting a natural area so that children come to know, love and care for that space. Children can then be encouraged to start practising simple acts of stewardship such as gardening, taking care of animals or raising butterflies. Through participation they can start to reap the health benefits of active outdoor engagement. As children develop, they can begin to understand the impacts that people have on their immediate environment and may explore small-scale solutions to local issues, perhaps by helping to rehabilitate a brown space or restoring a shoreline. As youth develop leadership skills while participating in local projects, they can develop confidence, a sense of agency and community belonging. By learning more about sustainable living, they may come to recognise that, through personal choices and action, they can contribute to healthier, more sustainable communities. Ultimately, youth should develop the foundational skills to tackle larger, more complex issues of social and environmental justice.

The Pathways to Stewardship and Kinship framework is currently being implemented in a pilot phase. Schools have been selected to participate in the stewardship themes and opportunities, in collaboration with community organisations and parents. Initial work is being undertaken in the early-years sector, with planning, monitoring and an impact evaluation project underway. If necessary, the framework will be modified in light of the pilot and then, subject to funding, the project will be rolled out over the entire region. The work so far has been rewarding and has provided an opportunity for community players with common and complementary goals to collaborate more closely and to envisage a way to contribute collectively to SDGs. It is becoming clear that when community players come together to promote education for sustainability the outcome can be far greater than its parts.


Seed funding for the project came from the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough with continued, ongoing support being provided by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The authors would also like to recognise the valuable contributions made by all the committee members that have volunteered their time and enthusiasm and the key work of the project coordinator, Cathy Dueck.