The current trend toward an increasing disconnect of children from the natural world constitutes a profound threat to our future as a society and even as a species. Recent data suggests children are engaged with electronic media (computers, television, games) on average 52 hours a week, while spending less than forty minutes outside. What is at stake here is not simply a dispensable recreational amenity, the chance for children to go outside and enjoy and learn about nature, or even fostering a conservation ethic and an attitude of good stewardship. Far more, children’s healthy maturation and development is in jeopardy and, with it, the future of humanity.
The psychiatrist, Harold Searles, remarked long ago (1960:27): “The non-human environment, far from being of little or no account to human personality development, constitutes one of the most basically important ingredients of human psychological existence.” Theory and evidence increasingly suggest that people possess an inherent need to affiliate with nature (something we have called, biophilia) instrumental to human health, fitness and wellbeing, and this relationship is especially important during the formative years of childhood (Wilson, 1986. Kellert and Wilson 1993, Kahn and Kellert 2002, Louv 2008, Kellert 2012, Children and Nature Network 2012).
Yet, the importance of children’s contact with nature remains of marginal interest to most of the general public, policymakers, and educators. The assumption still prevails that progress and civilization is a consequence of our society’s ability to transform, separate from, and transcend the natural world. We have become increasingly blind to the reality that our species, like all species, evolved in a biological not an artificial or human created context, and that our physical, emotional and intellectual fitness continues to be reliant on a vast matrix of experiential ties to the natural world, especially during childhood.
Humanity is the product of its evolved relationship to nature, countless yesterdays of ongoing interaction and experience of the nonhuman environment. Our senses, our emotions, our intellect, even our spirit developed in close association with and in adaptive response to the natural world. Our physical and mental health, productivity, and wellbeing rely on myriad direct and indirect connections to nature, even as our world becomes increasingly fabricated and constructed. This dependence on nature has shaped and continues to shape our capacities to feel, reason, think, master complexity, discover, create, and be healthy. Whether we choose to be farmers or financiers, foresters or professors, labor with our bodies or toil with our minds, our safety, security, and survival remains contingent on the quality of our experience of the world beyond ourselves.
The sparse data available suggests our most cherished capacities – physical health, emotional attachment, self-concept, personal identity, critical thinking, problem solving – depend on myriad and irreplaceable experiences of nature, particularly during childhood. Despite our remarkable capacity for learning and creativity, we remain bound like all creatures by the constraints of our evolved biology in a natural not created world. The extraordinary formative influence of nature deeply effects children’s health, fitness, and even moral and spiritual capacity. A child’s optimal development, the emergence of a secure and positive identity, the ability to think critically and resolve problems, and the creation of self-confidence and self-esteem are all an outgrowth of a vast web of interactions with the natural world.
Children experience nature in direct, indirect, and symbolic ways at home, at school, and at play. Nature is not just a place to visit outdoors in a park or forest, apart from everyday existence. It is also more than organized programs at school or at a nature center. Children also need unstructured and free play opportunities to experience nature in spontaneous and unsupervised contact in the realm of their everyday lives. Restoring children’s connection with nature is not just about enhanced intellectual understanding and outdoor exercise, but also about the experience of wonder, joy, exuberance, challenge, coping, awe, even dealing with fear and anxiety, all and more the basic stuff of normal development. Contact with nature is not just about direct physical contact with the outdoors, but also the representational experience of the natural world in pictures, stories, myth, legend, and design.
Even in the modern age, children’s contact with nature continues to be a vital and irreplaceable source of healthy maturation. The profound impoverishment in contemporary times of children’s contact with nature constitutes a threat to their physical and mental health and development. Intimating this possibility, the precipitous decline in children’s experience of the natural world in recent decades is correlated with alarming increases in rates of obesity, adult diabetes, myopia, attention deficit disorder, and autism among children. The crisis of deeply diminishing connections between children and nature may, in effect, be a threat to the future of humanity. The scale of the problem calls for bold steps and a deeper understanding of what is at stake. Some of this understanding can be found in a new book of mine, “Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World” (Kellert 2012).
Children and Nature Network. 2008. Research and Studies, Volumes I-VI. www.childrenandnature.org
Kahn, P. and S. Kellert, eds. 2002. Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Kellert, S. and E.O. Wilson, eds. 1993. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press
Kellert, S. 2012. Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. New Haven: Yale Press
Louv, R. 2008. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Press
Searles, H. 1960. The Nonhuman Environment: In Normal Development and Schizophrenia. New York: International Universities Press
Wilson, E.O. 1984. Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.