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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

Helping Our Children Fall In Love (Not In Fear) with Nature

Guest Contribution by Jennifer McDaniel


With every hike we take, plant we nurture, and critter we rehabilitate, we feel our relationship with the earth strengthen. Yet for many young people, that crucial link with their natural world has been all but severed. All too often, young people think of themselves as something apart from nature, and even view their existence as a detriment. Humans, after all, are the cause of many a misfortune lately. We are the cause of global warming, the vector for pollution, and destroying species by the dozen each year. Anyone who is 'ecologically correct' knows this, including, sadly, sophisticated pre-schoolers and kindergarteners.

At kindergarten orientation my child's teacher proudly informed me that the children would be studying the rain forest. Kids, I was told, need to learn at an early age about complex ecosystems and how to become empowered to stop their destruction. I found myself wondering what was wrong with a four year old digging for worms in their own backyard rather than worrying about some place 1000 miles away. More importantly, I questioned the need for such young children to be saddled with fears of a damaged ecosystem. Should they even be laden with the burden of fixing it when they are so young?

I hearkened back to what I knew of child development to answer these questions, something Master Naturalists working with kids can do. Knowing the age and development of the children you are working with is crucial in how you approach education.

Very young children, say toddlers to first and second graders, have a developmental need for security and safety. They need to know that their world and the people in it are basically good, nurturing, and abundant. They see adults as wise protectors, so whatever we say to them has a profound effect. That goes for how we approach the natural world as well. If we tell children that our world is in danger (from global warming, or by kids touching a bird nest out of curiosity) that child takes this very seriously. Worse, he has just learned that humans, including himself, are 'bad' for the world. What a confusing and distressing message for a child who developmentally has very little power to control his world.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, calls this dynamic ecophobia. He goes on to quote David Sobel: “If we fill our classrooms with environmental abuse, we may be engendering a subtle form of dissociation. In our zest for making them aware and responsible for the world's problems, we cut our children off from their roots.” In this case, their 'roots' means their home, the earth. How horrifying for a tiny child! Louv reiterates the danger of exposing young children to the devastation of nature and adds, “Lacking direct exposure with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse, not joy and wonder.”

In other words, children need positive first-hand and real-life experiences with nature in addition to not being told horror stories of extinction and devastation.

This kind of 'ecologically correct' education belongs in the classrooms of high school students, who are sophisticated and energized when it comes to problem solving. Their development (and that of some junior high schoolers, as well) is all about embracing and conquering the world. They do not feel the vulnerability of a young child who can barely feed himself, but instead champion the world's hardships with optimistic immortality.

But for our youngest, we must protect their world-view for the sake of their brains and self-concept. As sometimes skeptical adults, we tend to forget how frightening it was to hear of things like nuclear war, tornadoes, and contagious diseases. It also may have been a long time since we recalled to ourselves that we humans ARE nature. This earth is our home. So when we tell very young children that humans are harming our home, they feel afraid and guilty. Anyone who has tried to function with fear and guilt knows that it is not very productive. More so, children will project the misdoings of adults onto themselves, assuming that they are the ones at fault.

By the time most kids have gotten to middle school (3rd to 6th grade) they have heard a lot. They know about the plight of the polar bear and how fracking causes earthquakes. Developmentally, they should not have to deal with these things, but ours is a world of inter-global communication. If the information is out there, our kids have likely heard it. But we can still be mindful of the middle-schooler's development. At this age, kids have the ability to fall in love with the world. They develop crushes on any bright thing that comes into their lives, so why not let them fall in love with nature?

We can be mindful of letting children 'fall in love' with nature at all ages, but especially for children in pre-school through middle school. And we don't fall in true love through intimidation and fear. Master Naturalists can focus on the wonders of nature, how we humans belong to and are part of nature, and allow the developmental need for exploration and experimentation to be filled. We do not need to hold them responsible for fixing the world at this point, nor should we even mention the destruction of nature. As children become older, we can challenge them with finding a solution to our world's problems. But if they are burnt out and unattached to nature before they even get to high school, how will they cope?


How do kids become 'unattached' to nature? Let's go back to what Sobel says about exposing children to ecological abuse. What is he saying? To answer this question we must ask another. Would we tell young children about people dying by the hundreds from Ebola, or would we expect them to watch the evening news with its depictions of war and killing? Generally, we don't allow our children to be exposed to these things. It would be too traumatic until an older age.

Why then do we find it acceptable to tell them that our world is melting away or that whole forests and species are disappearing? This is what Sobel is getting at. It is traumatizing for children to hear these things about their world. The constant stress and upset causes children (and adults) to detach or dissociate from what they should naturally love. We certainly cannot protect them from all of it, but as educators and mentors, we can do our best to help children fall in love with nature, rather than to fear it.

Louv goes on to discuss how children are starting to fear doing anything to or in nature, lest they harm it. We are raising a generation that believes that humans are bad for nature, thusly, they must be bad for it too. They are afraid to explore or fall in love with the world for risk of doing something terrible. Some people become so detached that they become abusers of nature themselves, unthinkingly destroying plants, animals, and habitats out of ignorance or frustration. It is hard to have to see in front of you that which you are afraid to love.

The solution, according to Louv, is to allow children to become deeply attached to a protected natural area as early in life as possible. They should be able to explore and dig and climb without fear of damaging an endangered habitat. Kids should be able to peek in bird nests and raise butterflies without the criticism of “What if they don't survive?”. Here it is fine to walk in the creek and catch minnows and crawdads, raising them in jars for a few days to see what happens. Rocks and lichen-filled branches can be moved around to make dams in the water way, and kids can explore and experiment freely without the compulsion of a 'teachable moment'.

Many of us were raised with this freedom, but today's kids are often not. As Master Naturalists, we can gear our interactions with kids to encourage this free play and exploration in appropriate places. Yes, there can be a fine line between free play and chaos. Many kids have little practice moderating themselves in an unstructured environment. But what better place to begin learning than in nature?

We can let kids get hands on experiences—time and space to develop that crush on nature—by trusting them to get a little dirty and even mess things up here and there. Don't make them afraid to hurt nature by merely interacting with it. Many a tree has handled rutting deer, it can also handle a ten year old boy with a stick. Bird nests will be raided by raccoons and cats, and there is little harm in allowing a toddler to scale a ladder and take a peek at a clutch of blue eggs. Not every moment need be contrivedly educational; let kids explore merely for the sake of exploring. No test please! And when appropriate, let those kids be alone in nature, away from supervision, structure, and rules. Give them space to fall in love on their own terms. Experiences in nature can be deeply spiritual and communal with the soul.

So your challenge is this: Protect young children from the scary stuff. Know that their development calls for exploration in an untroubled mind and environment. Allow them some years to fall in love before you ask them to start problem-solving. And use your unique gift as a Master Naturalist and a lover of nature to give them time and space to spend in this world that is theirs.


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