"Our study provides the first strong support for the suggestion that environmental education can be transferred between generations and indirectly induce targeted behavioural changes," wrote Peter Damerell of Imperial College London in Environmental Research Letters (ERL), as part of the ERL Focus on Delivering on Conservation Promises: Risks and Impacts of Investments.

It has been controversial whether environmental knowledge is enough to change behaviour, let alone whether educating children can affect their parents' behaviour. Conservation educators often target children as attitudes to the environment are thought to develop young and to be hard to change. On the other hand, children often do not have the capacity to change their own behaviour or demand legislation change, commented the researchers in their paper.

But Damerell and colleagues found that children who had carried out wetland work at a wildlife club had greater knowledge, and their parents did too. What is more, parents of children who had taken the wetlands module used water more conservatively. Parents had higher knowledge scores whether or not they reported that they acquired environmental information from their children.

"Within this study, parents were often shown to be unaware that they were gaining environmental knowledge via their children," said Damerell. "This finding alone highlights the need for more quantitative, experimental-style investigations into the capacity of children to influence their parents' knowledge and household behaviours."

It could be that earlier studies that did not find an influence of children on their parents relied on adult reporting of the phenomenon.

The researchers found that the non-governmental organization Wildlife Club Seychelles, which offers extracurricular wildlife activities in every school, had taught a wetlands module at selected school clubs in the past 12 months. The topic of wetlands was particularly suitable as wildlife education tends to focus on individual species rather than habitats, so it was likely that initial knowledge levels about wetlands were low.

The team gave a questionnaire to children on Mahé Island who had attended one of 15 wildlife clubs, and their parents. Seven of the clubs had studied wetlands in the past year, while the others had looked at other subjects. The 161 children involved ranged in age from seven to 15.

"School children in the Seychelles are fortunate to have a curriculum that emphasizes the teaching of environmental concepts across a range of subjects," said Damerell. "In addition, NGO-supported wildlife clubs are present within all education institutions and represent an opportunity to undertake more detailed and interactive activities than are possible within the classroom setting alone."

When it came to being able to identify the nearest river, which the team identified as knowledge of a “folk” rather than formal nature, there was no difference between children who had experienced wetland education and their parents, and the other groups.

Freshwater habitats in the Seychelles, which were managed locally until the creation of a pulic utilities company, are undergoing degradation by litter, wetland reclamation and household wastewater.

"By providing evidence that shows children can cause their parents to take up more environmental practices, we hope that many more studies will attempt to look at how much knowledge is transferred under different scenarios, and which pieces of information are most likely to change household practices," said Damerell.