In a recent essay I wrote about the need for "wild" play by children and the great concern that it is declining globally. Now, I've just read that a survey of 8100 images in 296 award-winning children's books published between 1938 and 2008 shows a decline in the representation of nature and animals.
Some snippets from this report include:
- Early in the study period, built environments were the primary environments in about 35% of images. By the end of the study, they were primary environments about 55% of the time.
- Early in the study, natural environments were the primary environments about 40% of the time; by the end, the figure was roughly 25%.
- Images of wild animals and domestic animals declined dramatically over time, says lead author Al Williams of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: "The natural environment and wild animals have all but disappeared in these books."
This results of this study are bad news in many ways. They can translate into less concern about the environment and also a lack of connection with nature. Richard Louv, author of the seminal book Last Child in the Woods notes, "Nature experience isn't a panacea, but it does help children and the rest of us on many levels of health and cognition. I believe that as parents learn more about the disconnect, they'll want to seek more of that experience for their children, including the joy and wonder that nature has traditionally contributed to children's literature."
Psychologist Susan Linn notes, "Time in green space is essential to children's mental and physical health ... And the health of the planet depends on a generation of children who love and respect the natural world enough to protect it from abuse and degradation."
I was really troubled when I read about this study. In another essay I wrote, "Children are inherently and intuitively curious naturalists. They're sponges for knowledge, absorbing, retaining and using new information at astounding rates. We all know this, but often we forget when we're helping to develop their roles as future ambassadors with other animals, nature and ourselves. Some are also future leaders on whose spirit and good will many of us will depend. They will be other animals' and our voices, indeed, voices of the universe. So, it makes good sense to teach children well, to be role models, to infuse their education with kindness and compassion so that their decisions are founded on a deeply rooted, automatic reflex-like caring ethic. If we don't, they, we, other animals, human communities and environments will suffer.
The bottom line is pretty simple: teach the children well, treat the teachers well, and treasure all. Nurture and provide the seeds of compassion, empathy, and love with all the nutrients they need to develop deep respect for, and kinship with, the universe. All people, other animals, human communities, and environments now and in the future, will benefit greatly by developing and maintaining heart-felt compassion that is as reflexive as breathing. Compassion begets compassion -- there's no doubt about it."
Being the optimist I am, I still feel there's hope. A free online book published last year called Kids & animals (a PDF can be found here) based on my work with Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots program shows that there still are many youngsters around the world who do indeed care about nature and other animals. Another example of what we can learn from other animals in a chidlren's book can be found here.
It is our goal that Kids & animals will inspire other young people to draw and write about their feelings for animals and to put their own ideas into action to care for animals, protect their habitats, and promote compassion, empathy, coexistence, and peace. It is perfect for classes, discussions, and activities focusing on humane education and conservation education so that we can all expand our compassion footprint (see also).
While it may be an uphill battle we need to get kids out into nature and away from their desks, couches, computers, and other electronic devices. We need them to have direct experiences with the magnificence of nature including other animals and the best, and most likely the only way to do it, is to encourage them, or if need be require them, to get off their butts and incorporate "nature time" into the curriculum of all schools, not as an after school option but as part of the main school day. The future of the planet depends on our doing this right now. We should use the results of this study of children's book as an indication of just how important and irreplaceable these direct experiences truly are. We need to rewild our children before it's too late.