Children’s engagement with and belonging to their environments.

by Asher Ben-Arieh

Recent years have brought focus to the importance of understanding context when approaching the topic of child wellbeing, with both theoretical and empirical evidence mounting to support this movement (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Coulton & Spilsbury, 2014). Whilst research has most typically investigated the contexts of family, school, and socioeconomic status when studying children (Goswami, 2012; Lee & Yoo, 2015; Gross-Manos & Massarwi, 2022), this contribution, premised on children’s rights and their participatory perspective, emphasizes the importance of also exploring the environment and nature as contexts which shape children’s lives.

Children playing on a swing in nature.
credit: pexels | rodnae productions

Defining the meanings of ‘environment’ and ‘nature’ is not an easy task, in fact, it is often a problematic one, as people may experience and understand the same surroundings in broad and varied ways. Classically, nature is the term used to refer to an outdoor space, separated from humans. However, the environment refers to the connection which people have to a place, including the meanings, values, and interactions they associate with a physical space (Spiteri et al., 2022). Highlighting and examining the role of the environment and nature in children’s lives will help elevate current understandings of the importance of context for children.

A child climbing on a tree.
credit: pexels | allan mas

A key environment to consider in a child’s life is their neighborhood. Neighborhoods usually refer to urban areas, villages, or villages in rural areas, and these areas are not simply geographical territories, they are units of social organization that symbolize meaning to people as places to live, work and perform their daily tasks. The neighborhoods in which children reside are a space in which they are likely to spend a great amount of time in, so they represent important contexts in their lives (Allison et al., 1999). Research has shown that neighborhoods and their characteristics can influence children’s well-being (Rees, 2017).

Children playing in a field.
credit: pexels | quang nguyen vinh

Within their environment, children must feel free to play and experiment, feel secure to succeed or fail at tasks, and push themselves. For children, such activities are a part of their process of socialization, which is crucial to their development and well-being. Specifically, recent studies have shown that the natural environment of a child, a place in which they may engage with various components and explore, has a great contribution to their well-being. Furthermore, research has indicated that active engagement by children with their environment is associated with various developmental benefits, like igniting a sense of independence and autonomy, and providing a range of other physical, cognitive, and affective benefits (Adams & Savahl, 2017).

A child drawing with charcoal on a street.
credit: pexels | allan mas

Another important environment in a child’s life is the climate in which they live. Thinking on a bigger scale, there is growing evidence that humans are negatively impacting climate change, and this may hold negative repercussions on the well-being of children. As climate change worsens, it is more likely that children of future generations will be most heavily impacted by these changes. Moreover, growing media coverage of the negative consequences relating to global climate change has caused growing eco-anxiety among children and youth. Eco-anxiety, also known as climate distress or climate anxiety, is the anxiety one may experience relating to the global climate crisis and the impending threat of environmental disaster, causing symptoms like panic attacks, insomnia, and obsessive thinking (Cianconi et al., 2020), and this is harmful to children.  Also, the wish to protect nature and climate also leads to a growing number of children and young people all over the world being involved in demonstrations and different actions.

Young people holding signs saying "our planet our future" and "there is no planet B".
credit: karolina gabowska

In summary, considering the importance of nature and the environment as influential contexts in children’s lives these contexts must be recognized as an issue relating to children’s rights. Also, bearing in mind that children are the experts of their lives, it is imperative to talk to and learn from them directly regarding the importance of these contexts for them. Lastly, it is clear that we must recognize the efforts of children in dealing with the issue of climate change and appreciate their importance in this fight.

A child playing in a field.
credit: pexels | miriam salgado

Asher Ben-Arieh, is the Haruv Chair for the study of Child Maltreatment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a Prof. of Social Work and the Dean of the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare as of September 2021. Asher is also the director of the Haruv Institute in Jerusalem. He served for 20 years as the associate director of Israel’s National Council for the Child.

A boy holding a sign saying "There's no planet B"
credit: pexels | anna shvets


Adams, S., & Savahl, S. (2017). Nature as children’s space: A systematic review. The Journal of Environmental Education, 48(5), 291-321.‏

Allison, K. W., Crawford, I., Leone, P. E., Trickett, E., Perez-Febles, A., Burton, L. M., & Le Blanc, R. (1999). Adolescent substance use: Preliminary examinations of school and neighborhood context. American journal of community psychology, 27(2), 111-141.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Harvard University Press.

Cianconi, P., Betrò, S., & Janiri, L. (2020). The impact of climate change on mental health: a systematic descriptive review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 74.

Coulton, C. J., & Spilsbury, J. C. (2014). Community and Place-Based Understanding of Child Well-Being. In Handbook of Child Well-Being (pp. 1307–1334). Springer Netherlands.

Gross-Manos, D., & Massarwi, A. A. (2022). Material deprivation and subjective poverty association with subjective well-being reported by children: Religiosity as a protective factor. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.‏

Goswami, H. (2012). Social Relationships and Children’s Subjective Weil-Being. Social Indicators Research, 107(3), 575–588.

Lee, B.J., Yoo, M.S. Family, School, and Community Correlates of Children’s     Subjective Well-being: An International Comparative Study. Child Ind Res 8, 151–175 (2015).

Rees, G. (2017). Children’s Views on Their Lives and Well-being. Springer Cham. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-65196-5

Spiteri, J., Higgins, P., & Nicol, R. (2022). It’s like a Fruit on a Tree: Young Maltese Children’s Understanding of the Environment. Early Child Development and Care, 192(7), 1133-1149.

Children as experts.The Children’s Worlds Survey and its potential

Sabine Andresen and Asher Ben-Arieh

Two kids sitting making soap bubbles
credit: pexels eren li

Children are experts. They have knowledge, experience and opinions, but they are often not listened to. With the help of the children’s rights approach, the scientific interest in children and their role as experts is changing. In recent years there has been a growing interest among international researchers, policy makers and professional practitioners especially in the issue of children’s subjective well-being (SWB). The relevance of this concept arises for a number of reasons. One is the recognition that the use of traditional indicators such as Gross National Product as an indicator of societal progress has limitations and needs to be augmented by an orientation toward well-being or even the happiness and satisfaction of the population or of specific groups within the population, including children (Casas, 2011). However, it is also argued that possessing knowledge about the life situation of adults is not the same as possessing sufficient knowledge about children (Ben-Arieh, 2005). The issue of children’s SWB has to be addressed within the context of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the associated challenges regarding its implementation. The CRC acknowledges the importance of taking into account children’s views in matters that affect their lives (United Nations General Assembly, 1989).

Children in school uniforms in Nepal are filling out a paper-based survey in a classroom.
Credit: Children’s World Survey
Data collection: Children in Nepal filling out the survey.

Nevertheless, while research on adults’ SWB is well established, interest in children’s SWB is more recent (Ben-Arieh, 2012). Current studies, have focused on questions such as how to define children’s SWB, how to measure it, and above all what are children’s cognitive and affective evaluations of their lives (see for example Dinisman, Fernandes, & Main, 2015). However, much is still yet to be known about the comparative perspective. Specifically, do children share common SWB simply because they are children or whether and how children from different parts of the world differ in their appraisals of their lives? This is fundamental knowledge in order to grasp a more complete picture of what constitutes a good childhood and how we can ensure this is available to all children.

Two kids having fun
credit: pexels cottonbro

Together with colleagues from many regions of the world and the generous support of the Jacobs Foundation in Zurich, we have succeeded in launching the first ever global study, the International Survey of Children’s Well-Being (ISCIWeB). This study included a number of waves of a representative survey of 8-12 year old children. It is of particular importance that not only adolescents but young children from the age of eight are involved (Andresen et al. 2019). In the participating countries, children in schools are invited to participate in the study and thus their voice is captured worldwide. Anyone interested can get an insight into how the questionnaire is structured and what the results are via the website ( The project is based on the idea that one of the most important factors in assessing whether a particular environment is conducive to children attaining their best potential is the perception of their own sense of well-being. This is best done by asking children directly and by allowing them to give an assessment of their own well-being. Thus, the survey is based solely on the children’s own evaluations, perception and aspirations.

Man explaining a survey in an Ethiopian classroom.
credit: Children’s World Survey
Data collection: Dr. Mekonen collecting data in Ethiopia

Furthermore, the project is a cross-national, cross-cultural and multi-linguistic survey in which a variety of countries and cultures around the world take part. Consequently it provides valuable local and comparative insights into the lives of children in a diverse range of cultural contexts and substantial new information about how children live their lives. These national and international perspectives make it possible to improve our understanding of the nature of childhood in different contexts and draw implications for local, national and international policy. Additionally, the
use of newly developed quantitative assessment instruments for children, which cover relevant life domains, offers important understanding of methodological issues in comparative research with children.

Two kids doing an art project.
credit: pexels | Mike Jones

The project began in 2009 when a group of researchers, mainly from the International Society for Child Indicators (ISCI) with the support of UNICEF, acknowledged the potential need for an international survey of children’s subjective well-being. This resulted in a draft questionnaire which was then tested in two sets of small-scale pilots in the summer and autumn of 2010 and in the first half of 2011 in a total of nine countries (Brazil, England, Germany, Honduras, Israel, Romania, South Africa, Spain and Turkey), each followed by review and an evaluation of the questionnaire.

This learning led to the design of separate versions for children aged 8, 10 and 12. Up to now more than 200,000 children participated in the various waves of the project from more almost 50 countries. This shows that children want to be asked, they want to be heard and they have something to say.

A young person using a tablet
credit: pexels | julia m camero

Children’s SWB is a complex and multidimensional concept, and consists of several aspects. The Children’s Worlds survey provides rich data on numerous domains in children’s lives. We thus gain important knowledge about relationships in families, with friends, learn something about how safe children feel in schools or neighborhoods and what strongly or less strongly influences their SWB. These international data offer countless opportunities to compare children’s lives within and between different countries. There are also opportunities in all countries to discuss findings with children themselves. This is an important next step in enabling more participation. Finally, we are especially proud that many researchers are using the study findings to inform governments and practitioners on how to improve the situation of children.

four kids posing for the camera
Credit: pexels | samer daboul


The Children’s Worlds: International Survey of Children’s Well-Being (ISCWeB) is supported by the Jacobs Foundation.


  • Andresen, S., Bradshaw, J. & Kosher, H. (2019). Young Children’s Perceptions of their Lives and Well-Being. Child Indicators Research 12(1), 1–7.
  • Ben-Arieh, A. (2005). Where are the children? Children’s role in measuring and monitoring their well-being. Social Indicators Research, 74(3), 573–596.
  • Ben-Arieh, A. (2012). How do we measure and monitor the “state of our children”? Revisiting the topic in honour of Sheila B. Kamerman. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 569–575.
  • Casas, F. (2011). Subjective social indicators and child and adolescent well-being. Child Indicators Research, 4, 555–575.
  • Dinisman, T., Fernandes, L., & Main, G. (2015). Findings from the first wave of the ISCWeB project: International perspectives on child subjective well-being. Child Indicators Research, 8(1), 1–4.
  • United Nations General Assembly (1989). Convention on the rights of the child. New York: Author. Retrieved from: