Guest Blogger: Children Need Contact With Nature

Today, I debut an occasional feature of this website: a blog entry by a guest. I am delighted that my first guest is William Crain, a professor of psychology at the City College of New York, the author of Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society, and the editor of the magazine Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. I met Professor Crain while doing research for The Case Against Homework and, over the past year, I have enjoyed my many conversations with this wise man.

Children Need Contact with Nature

By William Crain

During my 35 years as a developmental psychologist, I have felt that children need rich contact with nature to develop fully. During most of this time, however, I only had a general impression that this was so; there wasn’t a significant body of research that specified what the benefits of nature might be. But by 1997, I thought enough research evidence had emerged to suggest three ways in which natural settings help children develop. I described these three benefits in a Montessori Life magazine article in the spring of that year, and more recent studies have generally supported my conclusions.

First, nature stimulates children’s powers of patient observation. As Roger Hart, Robin Moore, and others have found, children in natural settings spend long stretches of time observing things—plants, rocks, insects, birds, fish, and other small animals. Recent empirical studies by Frances Kuo, Andrea Faber Taylor, and their colleagues suggest that when inner-city children can play in even sparse green settings, their concentration on tasks improves.

Second, nature fosters creativity. In natural settings children love to create hideouts and shelters, and they often engage in rich imaginative play in these structures. Nature also inspires much of children’s drawing and painting. Parents know how commonly trees, birds, clouds, and grass appear in children’s artwork. Less is known about the poems children create, but on the basis of published anthologies, I estimate that nature inspires over two thirds of the poems composed by children between 2 and 8 years of age.

Third, nature instills a sense of peace and oneness with the world. The autobiographies studied by Louise Chawla make this point very well. Many of the writers recalled how, as children, free time in natural settings provided them with a sense of inner calm and a feeling of belonging to the larger web of life. These feelings frequently enabled them to weather the setbacks they experienced as adults. In addition, I suspect that the sense of unity with nature promotes lifelong empathy and compassion toward all living things.

In the last two years, people are beginning to pay much more attention to children’s need for time in the natural world. To a considerable extent, this new awareness is due to a popular book by Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. The book draws upon a wealth of interviews and makes a compelling case for getting children into natural settings. But as the book makes clear, this will not be easy. It’s difficult to get children outdoors for any activity, let alone for play and exploration in green settings.

One reason children spend so much time indoors is the lure of the electronic media. Another factor is increasing homework. I suspect that homework significantly restricts the benefits that nature can bestow on the developing child.

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