Quantifying Our Children's Necessity for Nature


Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. Kahn, P. H., Jr., and S. R. Kellert , editors . 2002 . The MIT Press , Cambridge, MA . 348 pp. $24.95 (paperback). ISBN 0-262-61175-9 .

In one slim volume this interesting compendium brings together research and essays from diverse fields of scientific inquiry to present irrefutable reasons to keep our local “pocket” parks alive and our kids outdoors. Children and Nature incorporates research from cognitive science, developmental psychology, ecology, education, environmental studies, evolutionary psychology, political science, primatology, psychiatry, and social psychology. The authors examine the evolutionary significance of nature during childhood; the formation of children's perceptions, values, and sympathies toward the natural world; how contact with nature effects children's physical, emotional, and mental development; and the educational and political consequences of the weakened childhood experience of nature in modern society. The book is specifically compiled to lay out the current research and question its underlying assumptions, to provide some history of ideas about children and nature, to acknowledge the emotional nature of the queries, and to challenge younger scientists into further research.

But perhaps best of all, this book sounds the trumpet call. Children and Nature provides poetry as well as quotable research data in bits that can be dropped directly into a proposal for a local community nature park. There is so much to applaud in this book, but it needs to take the last step: a bulleted list of its best insights and facts, ready to be slapped onto the overhead projector at town hall.

It is, however, a well-planned campaign in its own right. Kahn and Kellert have done a marvelous job of organizing diverse material, holding our hands, as it were, to help us find those quotable passages for ourselves. The introduction stands on its own as a definitive, cogent overview of the book's large vista and is well worth the read. The conclusions at the end of each chapter are indispensable; consider reading them both before as well as after the chapter itself. Although the chapters are written by a wide array of authors, the tone throughout the book is remarkably consistent—equally authoritative, questioning, and congenial. The congeniality will be a relief to naturalists, administrators, and educators who may well be using the book in nonscientific presentations. Each chapter concludes with a list of references that substantiate and extend the work without bogging it down. There is a conspicuous lack of posturing when results don't match expectations, and the authors generously follow with specific topics for further inquiry—a boon for young researchers. Such acts of promotion make it clear that all of the contributors care about this subject keenly. With their editors, they have presented their individual expertise with a consistently compelling, compassionate voice to assert that “… direct and indirect experience of nature has been and may possibly remain a critical component in human physical, emotional, intellectual, and even moral development” ( p. vii ).

Children and Nature abounds with surprises in a topic that at first glance seems self-evident but remains little documented by science. Editors Kahn and Kellert have organized the volume into three perspectives—evolutionary, psychological, and sociocultural-but what is disarming is the mix of poetry, reflection, lab work, and anecdotes together. Amid the primate studies creating evolutionary perspectives, the reader delights to imagine Girl Scouts intermingled in a group of mandrills calling the bluff of a “dead” toad. We learn of gorilla use of herbal medicines; we note that our boys are armed against our primal natural foes-snakes and mushrooms-in their favorite videogames. And we are touched by the account of a chimpanzee's kiss for his caretaker upon being given a backyard romping lawn. The theory of “biophilia”—that humans have a genetic need to affiliate themselves with nature—receives support from these studies of primates.

In the psychological perspective of “folkbiology”—how children conceptualize the natural world—we learn that Japanese children attribute “life” generously, including to mountains, whereas Israeli children are less generous, denying even plants the status of the living. A study in Houston, Texas, shows us that poverty-stricken parents care equally—and overwhelmingly—about their children's education about the environment as well as drugs. In chapters detailing research on cognitive and emotional development, the quotations range from such ecological philosophers as Rachel Carson and Edith Cobb to the pediatric social psychologist Robert Coles, to the personal remembrances of poets Dylan Thomas and Walt Whitman.

Careful consideration is given to the role of animals-actual and virtual animals, wild animals, companion animals, and zoo animals. For example, in one chapter we chuckle over a child's friendship with a turtle; move on to explore children's developing ideas of nonverbal communication; witness children's changing ideas of what is human versus animal; examine their developing morality as expressed in animal care; and study linguistic concepts proffered by Kant and Schopenhauer in the chapter's notes. In a later chapter, which provides an overview of the therapeutic use of animals, the discussion of aggression and animals touches on the zoo program with West Point cadets.

Another surprise awaits the reader in the engaging chapter profiling the Polish philosopher Jean Gebser, who provides an extremely useful set of theories about the “archaic consciousness.” These theories will allow environmentalists to move beyond the perhaps outdated, misunderstood, and overly sentimental heritage of Wordsworth's Romanticism to explain the spiritual aspect of child development within nature in a more modern context.

The third perspective of Children and Nature is sociocultural. With the astonishing assertion that “… children can recognize over 1000 corporate logos but only a handful of plants and animals native to their places …” ( p. xvi ), we begin to confront the problem of “environmental generational amnesia.” Once the reader has pondered the inevitable decline of their most intimate wild places, he or she may chose to take an adamant stand against even the most trivial degeneration of their children's local wildlands.

The book also tackles issues of adolescents as their relationship to nature changes during maturation. The authors ponder what it means that adolescents “… have lower preference for natural settings and greater appreciation of certain kinds of developed areas,” a theory derived from studies across the world. Surprises await many environmentalists in the discussion of malls versus wilderness experiences for adolescents. Unfortunately, the chapter addressing teenagers' metaphorical identification with natural “wildness” is underdeveloped, and readers are left wondering just where we should drop off our teenagers ( as usual ).

This query reaches its climax in the final chapter, “Eden in a Vacant Lot.” This important chapter clearly points out the practical difficulties of providing simple natural spaces for children that are safe. But it sounds a call to arms to do so. The course of action outlined by its “do” list is good but too brief.

In this way, Children and Nature falls a bit short, like a king's gardener in the ivory tower shouting to the village. We need people as forward-thinking as Kahn and Kellert to leap the barriers that linger between the lab and the playground. It would be exciting to have a companion book for Children and Nature outlining case studies of how such miracles have been previously performed by communities. Such a text could provide an overview of the research and theories explained in layman's language, followed by case studies detailing the efforts of educators, nonprofit institutions, community activists, politicians, and landscape designers coping with their specific difficulties and detailing their unique approaches to getting conservation done despite the odds.

Children and Nature has given us, elegantly and emphatically, the “why.” Perhaps the authors can also now provide tools and insights for the “how.”