Nature Nurture

Children can become stewards of our fragile planet.

Posted Apr 11, 2013

Earth Day is rolling around again. On April 22nd, once more we will bemoan the disappearance of myriad species, the poisoning of air, water and soil, and the many inventive ways humans have of despoiling their nest.  We will pause to extol the wonders of Mother Nature and vow to do better next year.  Sadly, our children will inherit the clogged, dirty and warming planet we are leaving them.  But they also are our last, best hope, the future stewards of our environment.  We can act now to nurture in our children a caring commitment to the Earth’s welfare.  Just as we help children to develop an ethic of caring for one another, we can encourage children expand this ethic to include other species and the ecologies all depend upon for survival.

Research tells us children are ready to absorb this wider ethic of care. Peter Kahn Jr. and his colleagues interviewed children from remote Amazonia villages, inner-city Houston, and urban Lisbon. Despite growing up in dramatically different settings, most children expressed similar concerns about waterway pollution, threats to native animals, and loss of wild places.   They cared about the health and beauty of wildlife and landscape. What’s more, they viewed harming the environment as a moral violation.  Results like these demonstrate that the seeds of an ethic of care for other species and the environment are sprouting in children.

These seeds of kindness need fertile soil to take root.  Much of modern life saps away at this ethic of care, rather than building upon it. Children have fewer and fewer direct contacts with nature. Kids can identify up to 1,000 corporate logos but only a handful of native plants and animals.  “Nature-deficit disorder” is not a recognized mental illness, despite the catchy phrase.  However, evidence is mounting that direct engagement with nature and wild places benefits children (and all of us).  For example, in playgrounds using natural materials, as compared to concrete, plastic and metal, young children’s play becomes more creative and imaginative.  Exploring in natural settings also has been linked to greater self-esteem and reduced stress. Experiencing nature up close not only has these immediate benefits; it helps promote children’s commitment to nature protection in the future. 

How can we nurture children’s connection to nature? Here are some ideas:

Look for ways to give your child a daily dose of nature.  Even urban children can watch a birdfeeder, plant a garden patch, or tend herbs on a windowsill. 

Advocate for neighborhood s that let children roam beyond the pavement. Kid-safe pocket parks, garden spaces, and wild areas should be part of any subdivision design.

Encourage school programs that “green up” while they build community.  For example, some high school students, in partnership with local organizations, have launched programs to protect public lands, develop a wildlife sanctuary, recover wetlands and meadows, or design an exhibit at a local zoo.

Most important, show by example that caring for nature is an essential part of being a caring person. Beyond recycling, energy conservation and responsible pet ownership, we can all pitch in to remove litter from green spaces, build rain gardens, and push for conserving as many wild places as possible.  We can share with our children the awe and wonder we feel as once more, spring renews the Earth.

To read more:

Kahn, P. H. Jr., & Hasbach, P. H. (2013). The rediscovery of the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kahn, P. H. Jr., & Kellert, S. R. (2002). Children and nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.