The Importance of Children and the Natural World
A relationship with nature can bring peace, calm and contentment.
Posted October 11, 2021 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Children and young people are less connected to the natural world than previous generations.
- A strong and healthy relationship with the natural world benefits people and other species.
- Childhood is important for forming a good relationship with our environment.
In 2005 Richard Louv published the ground-breaking book Last Child in The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. For such a niche area and heavy topic, it became a surprise U.S. bestseller and began important conversations on the connection to the natural world and children. Louv argued that our younger generations are less connected to the natural world than ever before and this widespread disconnection is detrimental to their health and the wellbeing of all living things. He stated that his observations were a sign of widespread and collective illness and that this relationship is a necessity, in the same way we need air, water, and food.
Louv is not alone, nor revolutionary, when arguing that nature experiences offer children something that other experiences aren’t able to. In his book, Louv writes, “In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.” (Louv, 2005, p. 7) and argues that these high levels of disconnection are a reflection of modern living with stringent restrictions on the actions of children and parents, governmental policies and technological advancements, and the increase in devices in the home environment.
Research has shown that pro-environmental activities and levels of nature connection are linked to each other (Richardson et. al., 2019) and that we have a natural and innate desire to connect with other species and other living things, often referred to as the "Biophilia Hypothesis" (Wilson, 1984). What Richard Louv is articulating with coining the disorder and term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder,' is the lack of desire or urge to engage with the natural world, which is being displayed by large numbers of young people, is not natural nor healthy and thus is demonstrating ill health.
As a child, I used to roam through fields with my dog. I used to jump over streams, collect frog spawn and be outside for hours on end. I would get mucky and I would do things that my parents did not know about and sometimes I would sit outside by myself and relax and do nothing. I would maybe lie on the grass in a field, or shelter by a stream under a rope swing attached to a sturdy tree. I would have no knowledge or awareness that what I was doing was good for my health, I did it because I loved it and I will always be grateful for my rural upbringing, which developed in me a deep love for the natural world. This relationship was hugely influenced by those fields, those streams, those insects, those aggravated but tolerant farmers, those moments where time slipped like water through my hand. Those formative childhood moments have provided the foundation for one of the most positive, fulfilling, nurturing, and healing relationships of my life: my relationship with the natural world.
I look at my children, and, while I try not to force my perspective and preferences on them too much, I cannot help but compare their childhoods with mine. They can’t roam through the fields freely because the chemicals and the equipment used now are different and the potential for harm to come to them is greater. They have different distractions and more sophisticated ways to spend their time. For me, going outside was filled with endless possibilities. Now it seems tablets and devices have more possibilities than my younger self could have imagined. My children have a relationship with nature, but it is dependent on my parenting and my actions, unlike the relationship that developed in my childhood.
It is also well-documented that many children and young people are struggling with their mental health from a very young age, with a report published by the NHS stating that one in six children being likely to have a mental health disorder. Research has shown that nature experiences can help with stress relief, trauma recovery, and concentration. Nature also offers a soothing sensory experience for many children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other conditions. It can help with recovery for children who are in hospital, as argued by Clemens Arvay in her book, The Biophila Effect.
“In children’s hospitals, doctors and therapists have also had positive experiences with the use of gardens during recovery of children of all ages. Nature easily distracts children from their own pain and the mental distress associated with a hospital stay. Nature in a garden awakens their imagination.” (Arvay, 2018, p. 144)
I feel for our young people and I think the only way to help them to develop a relationship with nature is by actively helping them to connect with it. I believe we have a duty to try and help as many young people as possible to have a relationship with our environment and to reap the rewards of this beautiful and emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually nourishing relationship. I want children to enjoy their natural world and have a desire to protect it. This, I believe, is one of our strongest and most effective ways of challenging the current widespread climate and ecological concerns. It makes sense that people will protect and care for things they have an affection for and connection with. Our natural world is no exception to this premise. Those who love nature want to protect it and they see it as kin, they see it as something precious and important.
Nature offers children experiences, memories, and opportunities that many homes, classrooms, and indoor spaces are not able to. These experiences are often related to feelings of freedom, stress relief, wonderment, and joy, and are invaluable and immeasurable when thinking about health and wellbeing. We must create opportunities for children to engage and connect with nature whenever possible. It is the responsibility of adults and, particularly, decision-makers, to help children create this bond and nurture this relationship. It is good for their health and for the health of the environment. There are no negative consequences of children developing a strong bond and connection with nature. It can set them up for a lifetime of positive associations and life-affirming memories and experiences.
Arvay, C. G., (2018). The Biophilia Effect: A scientific and Spiritual Exploration of the Healing Bond Between Humans and Nature. Sounds True: Boulder, Colorado.
Louv, R., (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Children from Nature- Deficit Disorder. Atlantic Books: London.
Richardson, M., Hunt, A., Hinds, J., Bragg, R., Fido, D., Petronzi, D., & White, M. (2019) A measure of nature connectedness for children and adults. Validation, performance and insights. Sustainability, 11(12), 3250.