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Kids These Days

Call of the Wild

What’s lost when kids lose touch with nature?

At four, the future primatologist Jane Goodall wondered how eggs come out of a hen—so she crawled into her family’s little henhouse to find out. After a while, a hen followed her in and gave her the answer. The little girl was mesmerized. When she finally emerged from the henhouse, she was met by worried adults who had been searching for her for almost four hours, so engrossed had she been by the laying of eggs.

Few children today will have an experience like young Jane’s. After all, it requires a kind of direct, unsupervised contact with nature that seems to have gone out of style in recent decades. No longer do we turn kids loose to play in the woods or in vacant lots. Now they seem to be either indoors with video games and TV or outdoors in organized youth sports. Rather than learning about the variety of species around us, they become conversant with the variety of corporate brands in the marketplace. More and more, they’re disconnected from the natural world.

While research on the effects of this development is still in its infancy, a few messages are coming through loud and clear. One is that the biologist E.O. Wilson was onto something with his “biophilia” hypothesis, which says we humans have an innate tendency to affiliate with nature. In fact, the hypothesis goes, if we thwart that tendency, we are messing with Mother Nature—rarely a wise thing to do. Professionals like Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, are promoting research into possible links between kids’ alienation from the natural world and problems such as obesity and attention deficit disorder.

Other observers, including the psychologist Peter Kahn, note that this alienation may endanger the planet itself. Learning to value nature requires significant personal contact with it. Children who grow into adulthood without that contact are unlikely to become conscientious stewards of the earth, no matter how much they learn in school and in the media about ecology—and unfortunately, the earth needs stewards more than ever.

Some have even suggested that, in failing to connect with nature, children are losing important opportunities to experience wonder—the kind of wonder that evokes the word spiritual. One example is the writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams, who says that as a child, she came to believe in God not because of what she learned in church but because of what she observed in nature—geese flying away in the fall and returning in the spring, always knowing their way.

So yes: the overcivilized lifestyle of today’s kids is a cause for concern. And remedying the situation may not be easy. It will require a complete overhaul of our way of relating to nature. We seem to have made a start, at least on an intellectual level. For instance, a worldwide community of scholars—among them philosophers such as James Gustafson, ecologists such as Stephen Kellert, naturalists such as Goodall and Ursula Goodenough, and legal experts such as Paul Waldau of Tufts’ Cummings Veterinary School—now advocate what they call a “biocentric” perspective, one that places us human animals not above nature but in it. And a growing body of research reveals the sophistication of animal communication (see, for example, www.elephantvoices.org). Such work leads to the conclusion that both human and nonhuman animals are members of the same large, extended family. The rise of biocentrism may explain why YouTube’s clip of water buffaloes being good parents and rescuing a calf from lions has more than 33 million hits.

How can we pass our nascent biocentric perspective on to the next generation? Relationships with pets may be a starting point. But let’s not overlook the importance of experience with other animals—extensive, unsupervised contact with living beings whose behavior is dictated by their natural tendencies.

Just as important, we must make natural areas clean and safe enough for kids to venture into them. We must share our interest in, say, the spiderweb on the porch or the hawk nesting in our neighborhood. We must include children in tasks such as turning over compost, and encourage experiments such as smearing food paste on trees and then stopping by at night to observe the gathering of critters. And then there is the henhouse.

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and lead author of the book Children’s Play. His latest book, Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management, is due out later this year.

  © 2008 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155