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Reports Part of series: Education and democracy & History of education: BERA Brian Simon Fund research reports

Land: what is it for & how do we decide?

A democratic study of children & their families’ perspectives

The importance of how land is used has been widely acknowledged, including by the United Nations which notes that Article 5 of the Paris Agreement re-emphasises the role land use can play in mitigating climate change. Land is a finite and scarce resource. At global level, there are growing pressures on how land is used.

Prior research has explored children’s understandings of a range of land-related topics, including their comprehension of science and the environment. This study, funded by the Brian Simon fellowship grant and on the topic ‘Education and democracy’, built on this existing body of research. It looked in-depth at what children and their families in one primary school class in England thought about how land in their local area should be used and explored how they thought conflicts about land might be resolved.

Report summary

This research project was a case study of one primary class in England and the associated families’ ideas about how land in their local area should be used and how conflicts about land use might be resolved. Children participated in a 12-week unit of work about land use rooted in place-conscious pedagogy. They were actively involved in data generation. Data were generated through seven child-led discussion groups with 24 children and through children interviewing 28 adults of their choice. The data were analysed using content and thematic analysis.

The study finds that children and adults have slightly different perceptions of current land uses. Whereas adults mostly perceive land as used for farming, followed by recreational purposes, children perceive land as used for farming and nature. Children and adults suggest there could be small changes to how land is used, including increasing nature in marginal spaces. However, unlike children, adults emphasise concerns about the economic and aesthetic impact of any changes.

The research provides a rich insight into the spectrum of views about who should make decisions about land use. While many participants see ownership as a prerequisite to participation in decision-making, the findings also highlight the complexity of what ownership and belonging mean. For participants in this study, a sense of belonging results from an interplay between a land ethic (Leopold, 1968), legal ownership and autochthony at the hyperlocal level. The benefits and drawbacks of a range of decision-making processes including voting, persuasion and community discussion are highlighted by both adults and children. Here, children’s immaturity (Dewey, 1966) results in pertinent critiques of some dominant approaches to decision-making, and children exhibit sagacity about their own limitations. Recommendations are made for policymakers, environmentalists and educators engaged with national parks and the climate emergency.


Profile picture of Rebekah Ackroyd
Rebekah Ackroyd, Dr

Lecturer in Education at University of Cumbria

Rebekah Ackroyd is the Early Career Researcher Network Regional Rep for the North of England. Rebekah is a lecturer in education at the University of Cumbria working on postgraduate provision. Her PhD research examined how teachers of Religious...