Thursday, August 30, 2012

In Defense of Wildness

When people think of nature, too often the only images that come to mind are distant, expansive places like Yellowstone Park and the Grand Canyon, or even more remote wilderness like Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is a grave mistake. Viewed through the wildlands lens, nature is something you might visit at best a couple of times a year while on vacation. Yet nature is everywhere—in our backyards, schoolyards, and gardens, thrusting skyward through sidewalk cracks and chirping in the neighbor’s tree. Indeed nature is quite literally everything, from stars and galaxies to planet Earth and the stuff in you. As Henry David Thoreau once said:

“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador a greater wildness than in some recess of Concord.”

If we’re going to connect children (and ourselves) with nature, we must learn, as Thoreau did, to experience the natural world often, and with our full suite of senses. But what kind of nature do we need?

The human experience of nature can be divided into three commonsense categories: wild, domestic, and technological. By wild nature, I refer simply to organisms and natural environments outside direct human control, from backyard birds to vast wilderness areas. Domestic nature, in contrast, is human-controlled—vegetable gardens and tree-lined streets, organic farms and urban parks. In this sense, your indoor potted plant and pet dog can be thought of as nature. Finally, technological nature is any human-produced facsimile of the natural world, from photographs and paintings to natural history exhibitions and documentaries viewed on plasma screen TVs. As portrayals of nature rapidly expand both in variety and quality, people are interacting with stunning simulations, sometimes in high definition 3-D. So it’s important to consider such virtual experiences as well.

Boundaries distinguishing the members of this trio can be hard to define. Whether one calls an urban park wild or domestic depends on a number of subjective measures. Certainly many creatures inhabiting these parks are wild, living outside direct human control. The boundary between domestic and artificial nature becomes equally blurry when we think, for example, about looking through a telescope at a distant galaxy, or even experiencing nature through a window. Yet my concern is less with defining divisions and more about which of these broad categories we need most, and in what amount, to establish a meaningful connection with nature. This issue becomes all the more pressing as wild nature is rapidly replaced—both in actual abundance and human experience—by domestic and artificial alternatives. 

My friend Peter Kahn, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has spent his career examining human interactions with the natural world, including technological nature [1]. One of his studies investigated the effects of nature images displayed on giant plasma screens in windowless offices. Adult occupants reported that, while they found the digital versions soothing, they strongly preferred firsthand nature experiences. Another experiment examined responses of young children to robotic dogs versus living canines. Once again, while kids enjoyed the artificial versions, they strongly preferred the real thing.

These studies and many others indicate that real nature—both domestic and wild—is far superior to technological nature when it comes to evoking emotional responses and sense of connection in adults and children. Some might counter this claim by pointing to the blistering pace of technological innovation. Granted, one day innovative engineers may harness replicated matter, force fields, and tractor beams to generate hyper-real artificial environments akin to those of Star Trek’s “holodeck.” Meanwhile, Kahn’s compelling conclusion is that technological nature experiences will be impoverished relative to the real deal.

This finding is backed by recent research showing that unstructured play in outdoor natural settings is essential for children’s healthy growth [2]. Compared to kids confined indoors, children who regularly play outside show heightened motor control—including balance, coordination, and agility [3]. They score higher on tests of self-discipline, and tend to engage more in imaginative and creative play, which in turn fosters language, abstract reasoning, and problem-solving skills, together with a sense of wonder [4]. Nature play is superior at engendering a sense of self and a sense of place, allowing children to recognize both their independence and interdependence. Play in outdoor settings also exceeds indoor alternatives in fostering cognitive, emotional, and moral development. And individuals who spend abundant time playing outdoors as children are more likely to grow up with a strong attachment to place and an environmental ethic. When asked to identify the most significant environment of their childhoods, 96.5% of a large sample of adults named an outdoor environment [5].

Why is outdoor nature play so powerful? For one thing, it offers a multisensory smorgasbord of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, immersing children in a much grander world than can ever be captured indoors, even on a computer screen. For another, natural playspaces tend to be complex, with a much greater variety of unspecified props (rocks, sticks, mud, plants, etc.) than indoor counterparts, so they stimulate more creativity and imagination. Then there’s that all-important sense of wildness, complete with birds, insects, and various creepy-crawlies, as well as the potential to create special places away from prying adult eyes.

We desperately need more research into the physiological, cognitive, and emotional effects of nature, especially the long-term impact of nature on childhood development. At present, it’s impossible to state with any exactness the ideal mix of wild, domestic, and technological nature necessary to forge a lasting nature connection in 21st Century children. Yet research insights and anecdotal reports help us rule out certain alternatives. For example, exposure to technological nature alone—from Lion King to Shark Week—isn’t going to foster emotional bonds with nonhuman world. Similarly, domestic nature by itself likely won’t cut it either. Even for the (now rare breed of) child who grows up on a farm with plenty of time spent outdoors, a deep connection with nature is unlikely without regular time immersed in some sort of wildness.

To be clear, I’m not denying that domestic and technological nature have important roles to play in fostering nature connection. They certainly do, and we need to utilize the unique assets of each, including such amazing tools as museum exhibitions and school gardens. Nevertheless, in contrast to these alternatives, wild nature seems to be an essential ingredient. When Louise Chawla of the University of Colorado asked a group of environmentalists to summarize the reasons behind their career choice, most identified two factors: “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature” [6]. Another study of 2000 urban adults from across the US, ranging in age from 18 to 90, similarly found that experiences playing in wild nature prior to age 11 were particularly critical in shaping both environmental behaviors and attitudes during adulthood [7].

The importance of wildness should come as no surprise, given that the human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in intimate contact with wild nature. And let’s face it—healthy relationships depend on recognizing and nurturing the autonomy of both partners. If we are to foster human-nature bonds, we must experience nature on its own terms, outside human control. On the flip side, daily, weekly, or monthly time spent in wilderness is neither practical nor necessary to forge a persistent nature connection. What children require is day-after-day, week-after-week exposure to some sort of nearby wild nature.

“But hold on,” I can almost hear you objecting, “what about the hundreds of millions of us who live in cities? Where are we going to find wild nature?” This question underscores a critical point. Like beauty, wildness is in the eye of the beholder. A child’s perception of wildness changes dramatically with age and life experience. A backyard or empty lot with bushes, bugs, and an abundance of dirt, while ho-hum to most adults, can be plenty wild for a young child. Kids in this early childhood phase instinctively focus on the immediate—flowers and earthworms rather than forests and mountain vistas. For children in middle childhood, a walk up a rocky creek flanked with trees is a wild adventure, whereas adolescents require more expansive natural places, including occasional wilderness excursions.

In future posts, I’ll delve deeper into the shifting target of wildness. For now, let me wrap things up by summarizing a major challenge now before us. If kids are to have those all-important, everyday experiences with nearby wild nature, we will have to re-nature—or, perhaps more accurately, "re-wild"the places we call home, from backyards and schoolyards to city streets and button parks [8]. It's time for a "Go Wild" revolution!

Notes and References
1. Kahn, P. H. Jr. 2011. Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
2. Kellert, S. R. 2002. Experiencing nature: Affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in children. Pp. 117-152 in P. H. Kahn Jr. and S. R. Kellert (eds.), Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA; Lester, S. and M. Maudsley. 2006. Play, naturally. A review of children’s natural play. Children’s Play Council, Volume 3,; Munoz, S. A. 2009. Children in the outdoors: A literature review. Sustainable Development Research Centre, Volume 4,; Hughes, B. 2012. Evolutionary Playwork. Routledge, London.
3. Fjortoft, I. 2001. The Natural Environment as a Playground for Children: The Impact of Outdoor Play Activities in Pre-Primary School Children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(2):111-117.
4. Cobb, E. 1977. The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, New York, Columbia University Press; Taylor, A.F., A. Wiley, F. E. Kuo and W. C. Sullivan. 1998. Growing up in the inner city: Green spaces as places to grow. Environment and Behavior, 30(1): 3-27.
5. Sebba, R. 1991. The landscapes of childhood: The reflections of childhood’s environment in adult memories and in children’s attitudes. Environment and Behavior, 23(4): 395-422.
6. Chawla, L. 1999. Life paths into effective environmental action. Journal of Environmental Education, 31(1):15-26.
7. Wells, N. M. and K. S. Lekies. 2006. Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children, Youth and Environments, 16(1):1-25.
8. Louv, R. 2011. The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin, New York; Finch, K. 2012. Nature Play as an Everyday Joy of Childhood? For Kids, Frequency Requires Proximity. C&NN Natural Families Network; Finch, K. 2010. “A Parents’ Guide to Nature Play” from Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood:  

Image Credits (top to bottom)
Image 1 & 2, Author
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Image 4: