How does learning about the future of the ocean impact children's emotional wellbeing? Insights from ocean literacy educators in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Four decades of research on the health effects of 'connection to nature' identifies many wellbeing advantages for young people. Yet this literature has developed largely without reference to biophysical evidence about mass biodiversity loss, the degradation of marine environments and climate change. As these interlocking planetary crises progress, children will be more likely to witness the marine environments they learn about degrade or disappear as they grow up. Improving ocean literacy is important to protect marine environments into the future. However little is known about how learning about ocean degradation affects young people's emotional wellbeing. We undertook qualitative research to investigate how ocean literacy educators in Aotearoa New Zealand view the content they deliver in relation to the emotional wellbeing of young people. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 21 key informants from non-government organisations (NGOs), Ministry of Education funded programmes, university-community partnerships, youth-led initiatives and local and national museums and aquariums. Transcripts were analysed using the six steps of Braun and Clarke's (2022) reflexive thematic analysis. Ocean literacy education was described as positively affecting young people's emotional wellbeing through interactive experiences in coastal environments. These provided opportunities for experiencing wonder, curiosity and a shared sense of connection and belonging. Educators reported witnessing distress and overwhelm in young people when some information was delivered. This resulted in educators 'not focusing on the negative' and moving straight to solutions young people could take part in. Our findings provide opportunities for re-imagining ocean literacy education as a space for promoting mental wellbeing, especially when young people have the opportunity to be part of collective experiences that promote joy and wonder. Intergenerational solutions where young people can be supported to take action with adults who work in solidarity with them are also recommended. Further research into how educators can be resourced to acknowledge and facilitate support around young people's negative emotional responses (such as grief, overwhelm and anxiety) is required.