Thursday, April 19, 2012

The 3 Es of Nature Connection

In just the past couple of weeks, the children-in-nature crisis has been featured in the New York Times, the LA Times, and on the BBC wireservice. Driven by the heroic work of Richard Louv, the Children & Nature Network, and many others, high profile media coverage is getting the word out. Childhood in this country is dysfunctional, even broken—and so too is our society. Rampant obesity, attention deficit disorder, and diabetes; depression, skyrocketing school dropout, and ever-diminishing environmental conditions; these and other interlinked problems threaten both our children and the places they live. At stake, some say, is the persistence of humanity. Drunk on technology with the pedal to the metal, we race toward the precipice with our heads down, texting.

Although connecting children with nature is certainly no panacea for the world’s ills, it may be the closest thing we’ve got. The freefalling biosphere is not, first and foremost, an external crisis of environment, but an internal crisis of mind. Our dominant worldview sees nature as resources to be exploited rather than relatives worthy of respect. Sustainability—humanity living in a mutually enhancing relationship with the rest of nature—demands that we adopt a strong sense of compassion for the nonhuman world. As biologist Stephen J. Gould once claimed, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.”(1)

Yet a fundamental question remains. How exactly do people form a meaningful, lifelong connection with nature? Critical subsidiary questions include: What kinds of knowledge and experience are most effective in building this connection? How does the process change as children grow? What is the role of adult mentors, and digital technologies? How can we engage kids, with their ever-shrinking attention spans, in the slow pace of nature? What kinds of nature—from television documentaries to city parks to wilderness trips—are most effective in fostering lasting connections?

Although the science of nature connection is in its infancy, a clear signal is emerging. A bond with the natural world does not explode into one’s consciousness in an “Aha!” moment or a sudden wash of emotion. Nor is it the product of learning a list of facts, like the rules of algebra or grammar. Instead, a meaningful connection with nature arises organically over many years, the result of a spiraling loop of positive feedback that interweaves affective experience with intellectual understanding.

Traditionally, the strong place-bond experienced by hunter-gatherers and many other indigenous peoples has been rooted in an immersion within local nature. So how are we 21st Century urbanites—separated from local landscapes by concrete, air-conditioning, and packaged foods—supposed to establish a deep sense of attachment with the natural world?

After years of research, consternation, and direct parental experience, I have come to the conclusion that the process of nature connection should be grounded in a trio of key ingredients: experience, ecology, and evolution—the “3 Es.” That is, a meaningful bond with nature requires abundant, multisensory experience outdoors together with a deep understanding of how that place works (ecology) and how it came to be (evolution). I invoke the latter pair of E-words words advisedly, knowing that both are burdened with connotational baggage. So let me explain briefly.

Ecology is used here in its most expansive sense—the study of relationships between organisms and environments. To be ecologically literate, or “ecoliterate”(2), means to understand something of how your place works. Where do your food, water, and energy come from? Where do your garbage and sewage end up? What are some of the plants and animals native to your region, and how do they interact? What are the major weather patterns, and how do they shift throughout the year? What does the local ecosystem need to thrive?

Similarly, evolution, regarded broadly as change over time, encompasses nothing less than the “Immense Story,” the cosmic, biological, and cultural epic stretching from the Big Bang to this very moment. To be evolution literate, or “evoliterate”(3), means to know something of the story of your place and your role within that story. How did the land form? What kinds of plants and animals lived here in past ages, and which are locally represented by fossils? Of the plants living in your area today, which are considered native, as opposed to invasive newcomers? Who were the first indigenous peoples to call this place home, and how did they make a living? When did Europeans arrive, and what kinds of commerce was this place built upon? As Thomas Berry eloquently told us for decades (4), we need a story. (An earlier blog post of this topic can be found here.)

Whereas ecology is concerned with the workings of a place at a given snapshot in time, evolution provides the story of that place through time.

The final E-word, experience, rounds out the trio. A meaningful connection with nature is forged first and foremost on experiences, from abundant unstructured time in the backyard to weekends in the park and occasional visits to wild places. We need intimate contact with the denizens and landscapes of our local places. Yet education too must be experiential, in and out of the classroom. Scientific ideas are far more memorable and meaningful when we perceive and reflect upon them directly with multiple senses. A deep understanding of nature must be absorbed through our eyes, ears, nose, and pores, as well as our minds. Above all, we need to engage children in natural settings. Aided by storytelling and other dynamic communication approaches, experiential learning offers the most effective means of communicating big scientific ideas like those embodied by ecology and evolution.

Education’s traditional emphasis on the “3 Rs” of Reading, (W)riting, and (A)rithmetic has provided students with essential tools useful in a range of situations. Yet if children are isolated from nonhuman nature by four-walled classrooms and homes, they miss the meaning and beauty of changing seasons, of birdsong and rainstorms. They ignore the ugliness of the built environment, and remain blind to deteriorating environments. For most of us, education has little relevance to our day-to-day lives beyond the self-serving hope that we will one day become wealthy, or at least earn enough for “the good life.”

Together with the 3 Rs, then, education should include liberal doses of the 3 Es. Rather than tools, think of ecology, evolution, and experience as a robust scaffold for building knowledge. The horizontal bars in this metaphor are ecological connections, how the place works. The vertical bars are the unified evolutionary story of local nature and culture. And the scaffold’s nodes, the intersections where horizontal and vertical bars meet, can be envisioned as firsthand experiences. Experience is the X-factor, the secret ingredient that synthesizes ecology and evolution, making this knowledge immediate, alive, and engaging. United, the 3 Es provide a grand context for understanding the world, a framework of big ideas upon which additional knowledge can be added for a lifetime. To be connected to nature, then, is to expand one’s awareness and become native to place.

But how are we to bring about this place-based revolution? What can we do as individuals to transform the children-in-nature movement from a grassroots effort to a tsunami of cultural change? Plenty.

Parents and educators can begin the process of taking back the outdoors, making it a commitment to give kids abundant time in nature. The growing numbers of family nature clubs can aid in this transition. Educators can connect kids with local nature by embedding the 3 Es in the core of the curriculum. We desperately need more research from neuroscientists, psychologists and educators on how best to foster nature connection. Those with extra funds can support these efforts, and those with influence can forge productive connections. All of us, from parents to city planners, can work toward augmenting the green spaces in our lives—adding native plants to backyards, schoolyards, and city parks. We can all learn more about the places we live, including the stories that give our homes deeper meaning. Sound like a pipe dream? Maybe, but some dreams come true, and this one has necessity at its back.


1. Gould, S. J. 1993. Unenchanted evening. Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History. Norton, New York. (quotation, p. 40)

2.Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley.

3. Sampson, S. D. 2006. Evoliteracy. Pp. 216-231 in J. Brockman (ed.), Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement. Knopf, New York.

4. Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York.

Image Credits (top to bottom)

Images 1 & 4. Scott Sampson

Image 2.

Image 3. National Geographic Photography:


  1. Thanks for this post about the importance of nature connection and the elements that can contribute to it- I'm spreading it to others right now.

  2. Hi Zach. Thanks so much. I'm very interested to receive feedback on these ideas to see if they resonate with others. I am integrating all of this into a general audience book now in progress.
    Cheers, Scott

    1. I'll be the first in line to buy that book! This kind of attitude is exactly what the world needs. We each must do our part to encourage new generations to fall in love with nature, and take up the cause of protecting it. Eco and Evo literacy is sorely lacking in our world, but it doesn't have to be that way. Kids can learn. We can teach. And vice versa.

      Natural science education is basically my life purpose. I love visiting this blog and getting to read the words of another who shares that drive. Thanks so much for championing this cause!

  3. This is a very well researched and written manifesto for change. I especially agree with your statement that experience is the E that has the "x-factor." In our contemporary society, it is hard to give our children sufficient experience in the outdoors. Our current paradigm of one-week a year - if that - at an outdoor or field-study centre is not enough. We need to look at a radical rethink of our educational system.

  4. Thanks. In Oregon, we are struggling to maintain outdoor school (a 45 year old tradition!) in the face of funding cuts and NoCHildLeftBehind ideological attacks on science and fixation with testing. Your writing provides clarity and framing that will be helpful in our efforts.
    I see environmental literacy as key to the success of my government's efforts to create a sustainable future. keep up the good work.

  5. Katie, Rob, and Rex. Thanks very much for your input. I agree on all fronts -- about the importance of environmental literacy and the need to rethink education. Good luck in your own efforts!

  6. This is a wonderful post and one I resonate with very much. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family that spent a fair amount of unscheduled time outdoors and am now struggling to raise my kids with similar privileges. I have also just finished a novel which, at its core, very much is in line with your words here. I consider it such an important topic that I'm working on another one that will be even more focused on the benefits of an alternative educational model that gets our kids outdoors and exploring their world while following their hearts.