Updated: Mar 24
Children are spending less time interacting with nature than ever. As rapid growth in urban areas forsakes biodiversity, children lose opportunities to experience nature. Their lives have also become more managed and confined indoors as sedentary activities such as playing computer games, watching television, and using smartphones decrease engagement with the natural world (Soga et al., 2016). In fact, a survey conducted in the United Kingdom found that children spend only about 4 hours a week outdoors - half of the time than their parents did when they were children.
Author and researcher Robert Pyle coined the term “extinction of experience” to describe the alienation of children from the natural world. This phenomenon has implications for future biodiversity conservation because when children’s exposure to the natural world decreases, their care for nature is likely to diminish (Soga & Gaston, 2016). Asides from that, children are also losing the opportunity to gain physical and mental health benefits that nature provides. Therefore, reconnecting children with the natural world is important for the health and well-being of both future generations and the planet.
Experiencing biodiversity helps children learn to coexist
From unique animals to diverse landscapes, introducing children to natural diversity teaches them to appreciate and understand their place in the natural world (Nwatu, 2021). As children are by nature full of curiosity, they are motivated to learn and seek information about the world around them. By allowing children to go outside and experience the natural world, they learn about local ecosystems and place more value to preserve them.
Research has shown how childhood experience with nature positively influences willingness to coexist with natural diversity. In Japan, for example, a study found that collecting insects and plants in childhood contributes to a positive attitude towards biodiversity in adulthood. Likewise, in Malaysia, researchers found that childhood experiences with nature such as playing in the river, collecting flowers or fruits, and catching frogs predict willingness to coexist with wild animals in adulthood.
Fostering children’s development through nature
Being outside and surrounded by nature has many physical and psychological benefits for a child’s development. Playing outside helps develop motor skills through activities such as playing with soil, inspecting animals, and running in the woods. Exposure to sunlight also triggers the production of vitamin D in the body, which is good for bones and the immune system.
Nature also provides children with opportunities to explore, question, and experiment, which is important for their development. When children succeed in climbing a tree, catching bugs with their net, or jumping further than before, they gain new skills and stories to be proud of. These experiences also offer children the opportunity to challenge their limits and take risks which can boost their creativity and confidence.
Too much time spent in front of the screen may lead to fatigue because it depletes children's mental energy. This fatigue can manifest in children’s inability to concentrate and irritability (Johnson et al., 2019). Taking children to nearby green or blue spaces can help to alleviate this problem as nature is well known for its restorative quality. In fact, research has proven that nature improves children’s mood, lowers their stress levels, and replenishes their mental energy (Barrable et al., 2021; Corraliza, 2010; Johnson et al., 2019).
Efforts to reconnect with the natural world
Given the benefits of spending time in nature both for the children and the environment, society should step up efforts to make sure nature is central in children’s lives and education.
Parents can expose their children to the outdoors by planning trips to places like arboretums, botanical gardens, or a local park. Schools should refocus curricula to be more ecocentric and outdoor-based, especially for early childhood. Local leaders should focus on building diverse green spaces and promoting biodiversity in urban parks to increase access to nature for children, and adults alike.
David Sobel, a noted place-based educator, said in his book Beyond Ecophobia :
"If we want children to flourish to become truly empowered let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it"
In the era of declining human-nature interactions, getting children to spend more time outside is crucial to creating a better future for the next generation and the planet. To learn and experience natural diversity from a young age is to kindle the love and respect for nature and for life. It’s time to reconnect the little ones to the place that nurtures and sustains life.
Writer: Kemas Saddam
Editor: Stevenson Ramsey
Barrable, A., Booth, D., Adams, D., & Beauchamp, G. (2021). Enhancing nature connection and positive affect in children through mindful engagement with natural environments. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(9), 4785. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18094785
Corraliza, J. A., Collado, S., & Bethelmy, L. (2012). Nature as a moderator of stress in urban children. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 38, 253–263. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.03.347
Johnson, S. A., Snow, S., Lawrence, M. A., & Rainham, D. G. C. (2019). Quasi-randomized trial of contact with nature and effects on attention in children. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2652. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02652
Nwatu, I. (2021). Getting kids outside: one of the best things a parent can do. The Nature Conservancy. https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/who-we-are/how-we-work/youth-engagement/benefits-of-outdoors-for-kids/
Soga, M., & Gaston, K. J. (2016). Extinction of experience: The loss of human–nature interactions. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 14(2), 94–101. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1225
Soga, M., Gaston, K., Yamaura, Y., Kurisu, K., & Hanaki, K. (2016). Both direct and vicarious experiences of nature affect children’s willingness to conserve biodiversity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(6), 529. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/ijerph13060529