Modern humans (homo sapiens) evolved and have lived in intimate contact with nature, in the savannahs and forests, for almost their entire 120,000±-year history. The cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals allowed our ancestors to dwell in permanent settlements, to expand their population more rapidly, thus beginning a long, sad divorce from nature. It wasn’t until recent history that most people lived in cities. But even until very recent history, children still grew up with intimate contact with nature.
Throughout most of history, when children were free to play, their first choice was often to flee to the nearest wild place—whether it was a big tree or brushy area in the yard or a watercourse or woodland nearby. Two hundred years ago, most children spent their days surrounded by fields, farms or in the wild nature at its edges. By the late twentieth century, many children’s environments had become urbanized. But even then, as recently as 1970, children had access to nature and the world at large. They spent the bulk of their recreation time outdoors, using the sidewalks, streets, playgrounds, parks, greenways, vacant lots and other spaces “left over” during the urbanization process or the fields, forests, streams and yards of suburbia. Children had the freedom to play, explore and interact with the natural world with little or no restriction or supervision.
Children’s Extinction of Experience The lives of children today are much different. Children today have few opportunities for outdoor free play and regular contact with the natural world. Their physical boundaries have shrunk due to a number of factors. A ‘culture of fear’ has parents afraid for their children's safety. A 2004 study found that 82% of mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 12 identified crime and safety concerns as one of the primary reasons they don’t allow their children to play outdoors. Due to ‘stranger danger,’ many children are no longer free to roam their neighborhoods or even their own yards unless accompanied by adults . Fears of ultraviolet rays, insect-born diseases and various forms of pollution are also leading adults to keep children indoors. Furthermore, children's lives have become structured and scheduled by adults, who hold the mistaken belief that this sport or that lesson will make their young children more successful as adults. Research says that a childhood of unsupervised loitering, wandering and exploring has been replaced by a childhood of adult supervised and scheduled improvements.
The culture of childhood that played outside is gone and children’s everyday life has shifted to the indoors. As a result, children’s opportunity for direct and spontaneous contact with nature is a vanishing experience of childhood. One researcher has gone so far as to refer to this sudden shift in children’s lives and their loss of free play in the outdoors as a ‘childhood of imprisonment’. Childhood and regular unsupervised play in the outdoor natural world are no longer synonymous. Research calls this the ‘extinction of experience,’ which breeds apathy towards environmental concerns. Research also says society today has become “so estranged from its natural origins, it has failed to recognize our species’ basic dependence on nature as a condition of growth and development.”
Not only have children’s play environments dramatically changed in the last few decades, but also the time children have to play has decreased. Between 2001 and 2017, the amount of time children ages 6 to 8 in the U.S. played decreased 25%, by almost four hours per week, from 15 hours a week to 11 hours and 10 minutes. During the same period, the time they spent in school increased by almost 5 hours. A recent study surveyed mothers and found that 70% of mothers in the U.S. played outdoors everyday when they were children, compared with only 31% of their children, and that when the mothers played outdoors, 56% remained outside for three or more hours compared to only 22% of their children.
Mediated Experience Today, with children’s lives disconnected from the natural world, their experiences are predominately mediated in media, written language and visual images. The virtual is replacing the real. TV, nature documentaries, National Geographic and other nature TV channels and environmental fundraising appeals are conditioning children to think that nature is exotic, awe-inspiring and in far, far away, places they will never experience. Children are losing the understanding that nature exists in their own backyards and neighborhoods, which further disconnects them from knowledge and appreciation of the natural world.
Loss of Contact with Nature is Nature’s Loss Not only does the loss of children’s outdoor play and contact with the natural world negatively impact the growth and development of the whole child and their acquisition of knowledge, it also sets the stage for a continuing loss of the natural environment. The alternative to future generations who value nature is the continued exploitation and destruction of nature. Research is clearly substantiating that an affinity to and love of nature, along with a positive environmental ethic, grow out of children’s regular contact with and play in the natural world.
Schoolgrounds Offer Hope With children’s access to the outdoors and the natural world becoming increasingly limited or nonexistent, child care, kindergarten and schools, where children spend 40 to 50 hours per week, may be mankind’s last opportunity to reconnect children with the natural world and create a future generation that values and preserves nature. Many authorities believe the window of opportunity for the formation of bonding with and positive attitudes towards the natural environment develops sometime during early and middle childhood and requires regular interaction with nearby nature. Some authorities believe that if children don’t develop a sense of respect and caring for the natural environment during their first few years, they are at risk for never developing such attitudes.
Premature Abstraction Breeds Biophobia The problem with much environmental education is that it approaches education from an adult’s, rather than a child’s perspective. Children’s curiosity with the natural world and unique way of knowing requires discovery and exploratory learning, rather than a didactic approach. One of the main problems with most environmental education is premature abstraction, teaching children too abstractly. One result of trying to teach children at too early of an age about abstract concepts like rainforest destruction, acid rain, ozone holes and whale hunting can be dissociation. When we ask children to deal with problems beyond their cognitive abilities, understanding and control, they can become anxious, tune out and develop a phobia to the issues. In the case of environmental issues, biophobia—a fear of the natural world and ecological problems—a fear of just being outside—can develop. Studying about the loss of rainforests and endangered species may be age appropriate for middle school children, but is developmentally inappropriate for pre-school and elementary school students.
John Burroughs cautioned that, “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.” The problem with most environmental education programs for young children is that they try to impart knowledge and responsibility before children have been allowed to develop a loving relationship with the earth. Children’s emotional and affective values of nature develop earlier than their abstract, logical and rational perspectives. We need to allow children to develop their biophilia, their love for the Earth, before we ask them to save it. Rather than books and lectures, nature itself is children’s best teacher. Young children tend to develop emotional attachments to what is familiar and comfortable for them. The more personal children’s experience with nature, the more environmentally concerned and active children are likely to become.
Discovering Children’s Ecopsychological Self During the preschool years, it is important to help children discover what has been termed as their ecopsychological self—the child’s natural sense of self in relation to the natural world. Many authorities believe that due to humans’ evolution in the natural world, we possess nature-based genetic coding and instincts, that children are born with a natural sense of relatedness to nature and this innate and developmental tendency towards empathy, biophilia or affiliation with nature needs to be nurtured starting in their earliest years. Children’s instinctive feelings of continuity with nature are demonstrated by the attraction fairy tales set in nature and populated by animal characters have to children.
The extent to which an individual believes s/he is a part of nature, their connectiveness to nature, has been shown to be correlated with positive environmental attitudes. Research has also demonstrated that children’s positive encounters with nature can lead to development of an environmental ethic. Young children’s sense of self needs to develop in connection with and as a part of nature. Research indicates that children’s understanding of the relationship of humans to nature is both partially complete and under construction during early childhood.
Children’s development with little or no regular contact with the natural world is seen as a process of socialization by which children come to see themselves as separate and not a part of the natural world. If children’s developing sense of self becomes disconnected from the natural world, then nature comes to be seen as something to be controlled and dominated rather than loved and preserved. The child develops biophobia that can range from discomfort and fear in natural places to a prejudice against nature and disgust for whatever is not manmade, managed or air-conditioned.
Research believes that developing children’s empathy with the natural world should be the main objective for children ages four through seven. Children’s experiences during early childhood should nurture the conception of the child as a part of nature. It is during early childhood when children’s experiences give form to the values, attitudes, and basic orientation toward the world that they will carry with them throughout their lives. Regular positive interactions within nature help children develop respect and a caring attitude for the environment. Not only are regular experiences in nature important, but also watching adults, both parents and teachers, modeling enjoyment of, comfort with, and respect for nature.
Research advocates that in addition to regular contact with nature, one of the best ways to foster empathy during early childhood is to cultivate children’s relationships with animals. Young children feel a natural kinship with, and are implicitly drawn to animals and especially baby animals. Animals are an endless source of wonder for children, fostering a caring attitude and sense of responsibility towards living things. Children interact instinctively and naturally with animals, talk to them, and invest in them emotionally. A little-known fact about children and animals is that studies of the dreams of children younger than age 6 reveal that as many as 80% of their dreams are about animals. An addition significance of animals’ symbolic importance to children is that animals constitute more than 90% of the characters employed in language acquisition and counting in children’s preschool books.
Conclusion Children and society as a whole can benefit significantly by teaching children environmental values at an early age to become the future stewards of the Earth who will preserve the diversity and wonder of Nature.