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Study concludes that urban children have a great lack of knowledge about aquatic ecosystems and their biodiversity

11 may, 2022
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According to a study coordinated by Maria João Feio, research at the Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre of the University of Coimbra (MARE-UC), urban children have a great lack of knowledge about aquatic ecosystems and their biodiversity, as well as a fear of contact with nature (water, land, plants, animals…).

The study focused on assessing the impact of a continuing environmental project with children aged 6 to 10 (elementary school) and was carried out as part of the CresceRio project, which aims to educate children about the importance of urban streams, their biodiversity and services, as well as draw society's attention to the need for their recovery. The project involves an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, sociologists and artists from the University of Coimbra, the University of Aveiro and the Marionet theatre company.

In this specific work, the team evaluated the impact of five activities carried out over two school years (1st and 2nd grade) with a class from a primary school in Coimbra. As part of these activities, the students got to know different urban riversides in Coimbra and one in Serra da Lousã. In all of them, they characterized the vegetation, sampled benthic invertebrates and microalgae and analysed the anthropogenic disturbances in the surrounding environment. They also held a laboratory class to identify the fauna and flora, using optical microscopes and binocular magnifiers, and calculated ecological quality indices of the rivers.

According to the study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, the fears revealed by the children progressively decreased throughout the project as their knowledge about ecosystems increased. By the end, the students were able to say the names of riparian trees, aquatic plants and invertebrates and identify the major problems in these systems.

The study also concluded that at these ages (6-10 years) time is needed "for results to show and have a lasting benefit, as opposed to occasional awareness-raising actions. We have shown the effect of regular contact between children and nature. Not only do they gain an important sensitivity that allows them to distinguish what is good and bad in aquatic ecosystems, thus contributing to their preservation, but they also lose the fear of contact with animals, water and land that they demonstrated in the beginning, reconnecting with nature", says Maria João Feio.

For the researcher from the Department of Life Sciences of the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the University of Coimbra (FCTUC), the results of this study show that "it is essential to promote children's contact with nature and give them knowledge about ecosystems and biodiversity, in order to promote sustainable behaviour later on. This process should start early and be continuous (we started when the children couldn't even read and write!). Introducing themes linked to ecology with practical and field lessons in the elementary school curriculum is crucial".

The CresceRio project is co-funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) through the MARE and GeoBioTec centres and by the Ministry of Culture - which funds the participation of the Marionet theatre company. The scientific article is available at:


Original news article in Portuguese: Cristina Pinto

English version: Diana Taborda