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Written by Sally Munro   

Preserving the Connection

Between Children and the Natural World

A Growing Movement

By Sally Munro

As a child I spent three weeks each summer wandering on remote beaches and mountains; I spent my school holidays in happy solitude, exploring the orchards, gardens and fields of my grandparent’s countryside home, and at the end of every school day, without fear, I played in the streets, alleys, parks and vacant lots of my entire neighborhood.

As an adult, it was these early experiences in nature that guided me towards becoming a teacher and pursuing a degree in natural science. I wanted to pass on a sense of wonder for the natural world to others. As part of my course work for my degree, I was often shown how to teach children about topics such as: global warming, endangered species, acid rain, etc. Although concerned about these topics myself, I wondered why one would ever want to expose young children to such doom and gloom.

I have always believed that children need to connect with the earth and learn to love it before they are asked to take on the woes of environmental problems. However, teaching young children about environmental destruction is now a common practice. Children are surrounded by TV programs, videos, magazines, and classroom curriculum all containing negative messages about the environment. These messages come from well-intentioned sources: people who want to make a difference; people who think that awareness of the Earth’s problems will help children to care about the world and then go on to save it. Recently, however, these messages contain a growing level of anxiety-producing information.

Advertised as “the scariest movie you will ever see, An Inconvenient Truth, released in September of 2006, is a documentary film about climate change, specifically global warming. Presented by former United States Vice President Al Gore, the premise of the movie is that:

Humanity is sitting on a ticking time bomb. If the vast majority of the world's scientists are right, we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced.

The film has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people and is the third-highest-grossing documentary in the U.S. The companion book of the same title has been on the New York Best Sellers list since June of 2006.

In February of 2007, the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) published a report that took 130 lead authors, including meteorologists and climatologists from across the world three years to write. More than 800 scientists contributed to the report which concludes that it is more than 90% likely that human activity is responsible for climate change. This report has been highly publicized in news stories and magazine articles around the world.

Since the release of An Inconvenient Truth and the I.P.C.C. report, there is an increased awareness and acceptance of global warming and related environmental issues within the general population. What previously was a controversial theory discussed by scientists and academics is now part of casual dinner conversation in homes all across America. Young children are now being exposed to messages about the earth’s environment that make most adults break into a cold-sweat.

Throughout the year, as I have witnessed the fall-out from An Inconvenient Truth and the I.P.C.C. report, I have felt discomfort growing within me. I sat with sweaty hands watching first and second graders absorb information in an all-school assembly on global warming and I clenched my teeth while listening to a student crying after learning that polar bears no longer have ice to live on. However, my discomfort could barely be restrained when I overheard a second grade student make the following announcement to a group of friends:

All the animals are going to die. It's going to get hotter and hotter and hotter. The ice is going to melt. It’s going to flood and we are all going to die.

Unaware of the fear and panic he was creating, this student grew more and more animated as he shared this fascinating information. His friends, however, were truly horrified, and went home to emotional outbursts and sleep haunted by nightmarish visions of catching on fire.

Driven by an overwhelming level of discomfort, I began a search. I hoped to find others who felt like me, that young children need to be protected from disturbing messages about the environment. I also hoped to discover possible guidelines to help parents and educators talk appropriately with kids about global warming and related environmental issues.

In searching, I found that the internet is teeming with websites providing guidelines for how to talk to kids about “tough issues,” including war, AIDS, violence, terror, natural disaster, sexual relationships, but not for global warming or other environmental threats. As tragic and devastating as the AIDS epidemic is, beyond it, there is a bigger world of hope–a sense that we shall one day find a cure. As horrific and violent as the terrors of war are, beyond them is a bigger world of hope–a sense that a resolution can be reached; that the war will end and that normality will be restored.

Beyond global warming and the possible destruction of the Earth's natural environment and the species that depend on it, possibly including our own, is there a bigger world of hope? If the balance of the Earth, our mother, our home, becomes disrupted, destroyed, what bigger world of hope lies beyond? Global warming could be the toughest issue we will ever have to talk to our kids about, and we have very little help in the way of guidelines.

Although unsuccessful in my hunt for guidelines, my search has revealed that there are many adults, like me, worried about the effects that negative messages regarding the natural world might be having on our youth. More importantly, however, I discovered that their concerns are sparking growing national and international movements.

David Sobel and Ecophobia
David Sobel is the author of Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. In his interpretation, ecophobia means fear of environmental destruction. He asks: “what really happens when we lay the weight of the world's environmental problems on eight and nine year olds, already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature?” Sobel believes that: “our environmentally correct curriculum may be creating a subtle form of dissociation that ends up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world.”

In 1978, Thomas Tanner, a professor of environmental studies at Iowa State University conducted a study to reveal what were the formative influences in the lives of environmentalists that had steered them towards environmental activism. He polled staff members and chapter members of environmental organizations. By far, the most frequently cited influence was childhood experience of natural, rural, or other relatively pristine habitats.

Similar surveys have since been conducted and in a 1999 review, Louise Chawla a developmental and environmental psychologist, concluded that many environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources: many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood, and an adult who taught a respect for nature.

Sobel concludes that the key to connecting children with the natural world is to allow a close relationship to develop between the child and nature through “immersion, solitude, and interaction in a close, knowable place.”

Thanks to Sobel, many zoos are now part of a movement within the International Zoo Educators Association to provide age appropriate messages about conservation. At Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, the word endangered has been removed from the exhibits aimed at children under the age of eleven. These exhibits are now designed for the greatest possible hands-on experience and opportunity for children to connect with nature.

In 2002 the Brookfield Zoo hosted the first national conservation psychology conference. Believing that it is impossible to conserve animals and plants without understanding and working with people, the goal of the conference was to “study in a scientific way the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature…with the end goal of encouraging people to care about and take care of the natural world."

Richard Louv and the No Child Left Inside Initiative
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder claims that today’s society unconsciously associates nature with doom and disassociates the outdoors from wonder and solitude. Louv believes that the bond between nature and our youth is breaking.

Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed. Today kids are aware of the global threats to the environment–but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child.”

After presenting a compelling body of research linking positive experiences in nature to overall health, and providing striking evidence of the negative and far-reaching consequences that isolation from the natural world is having on our young, Louv, goes on to state that:

…healing the broken bond between our young and nature is in our self-interest….because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends on it. The health of the earth is at stake as well. How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes–our daily lives.

Louv has inspired State and regional campaigns, called Leave No Child Inside. In September 2006, the National Conservation Training Center and the Conservation Fund hosted the National Dialogue on Children and Nature. The conference attracted about 350 people from around the country.

The National Wildlife Association recently published the Green Hour website. With the goal of giving information, tools, and inspiration to get kids outside, the site recommends that: “parents give their kids a Green Hour every day, a time for unstructured play and interaction with the natural world.”

This May the U.S. Forest Service warded 1.5 million dollars to improve children's health and make a closer, active connection between America's youth and the outdoors.

Dr. Jane Goodall and the Roots and Shoots Program
Dr. Jane Goodall is another adult concerned about the relationship between children and nature. Although Dr. Goodall is most at home in the peaceful forests of Gombe, she finds it impossible to stay there anymore as she sees a desperate need in children. She believes that because of increased urbanization children are growing up without contact with nature, and that they are being robbed of their childhood.

On a mission to help provide meaningful relationships between children and the natural world, Dr. Goodall has developed a program called Roots and Shoots that currently involves young people from 29 countries around the world in projects caring for nature and animals in their local community.

I am not alone in my belief that children need to bond with the Earth before they are asked to save it. In fact, I am in very good company and part of a swelling number of people who are working to protect the connection between children and the natural world. The widely held premise of teaching young children about environmental destruction in the hope that they will care enough to “save the world” is misguided. Although well intentioned, this approach may actually cause children to feel powerless and disconnected from the natural world altogether.

In the movie, Awakening a Sense of Wonder–Children and Nature, produced by the Foundation for Global Community, the narrator begins with this statement:
We know that all of creation: the trees, the birds, the flowers, the mountains, the oceans, all the animals, even ourselves are made up of atoms and particles that once made their home in the stars, and that life, all life, began in the sea, and so it is not so unusual that there is something in us that is drawn to the natural world, something deep and profound–something that remembers.

This mysterious and powerful something is the source of inspiration behind my desire to share my love of nature with others; it is the source that has inspired the commitment of the world’s most esteemed conservationists and it is the source that will inspire our future environmental stewards.

It is up to us to ensure that this ancient and sacred connection with nature is preserved, and we must do so by protecting children from negative messages about the environment, and by immersing them in the natural world and allowing them to develop a sense of love and joy for the beauty and wonder of the Earth.

Sally Munro is a local educator. She lives in Capitola with her husband and six-year-old daughter. Sally’s son, who spent many hours in nature, is now creating solutions for a sustainable future by studying environmental resource engineering at Humboldt State University.

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