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. Trailspace.com
Image 3. National Geographic Photography: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/