Environmental education in schools is an important strategy in achieving environmental protection and improvement. However, it needs to be based on children's understandings of environment rather than on assumptions of what children know and believe. In a previous article (Loughland et al ., 2002), we reported on a research project where school children's responses to an open-ended statement 'I think the term/word environment means…' were analysed using the qualitative research method of phenomenography. An important qualitative difference was found between conceptions that treat the environment as a relation and those that treat it as an object. In this article, we examine statistically the factors that incline students to a 'relation' rather than an 'object' conception of environment. We argue that development of the former would seem to be an important aim of environmental education, and indicate how this may be achieved.