Ask most parents and grandparents and they will tell you being a child today is not what it used to be. As the world has industrialized, urbanized and our technology advanced, people's lives have moved largely inside — a far cry from the 'free-range', nature-based childhoods of past decades.
That shift has repercussions not only for children's happiness — a wealth of research shows humans respond positively to nature — but also for the way they care for the natural environment. DW spoke to Louise Chawla, a professor in the Environmental Design Program at the University of Colorado in the United States, about her research on how we can create the optimal environments for children and adolescents to grow up in healthy ways.
DW: How different are the childhoods of today's children?
Over the past two generations, both children's and adult lives have largely moved indoors. Studies typically show that we spend some 90% of our time either in a building or in a car. And that's very different than the free-range childhoods that a lot of grandparents remember, when the one rule governing their life was be home for dinner.
DW: Why is this childhood connection to nature so important?
Well, of course, we evolved in the natural world, and this urbanization and moving indoors is a blink of a few seconds in terms of human evolution. And we know with a great deal of research done with both adults and children that our bodies physiologically respond positively to being outdoors in safe, natural areas. And we immediately show a physiological reduction in stress. But along with that, both children and adults report feeling happier when they're outdoors in in natural areas.
DW: Connection to nature is now quite abstract. How do you define it? What counts as nature?
Fortunately, what counts as nature is very broad. I mean, it could be the wilderness for a young child. It could also be the overgrowth of weeds in a back corner of the neighborhood. And there are actually some very beautiful autobiographical records that I have of people remembering just kind of wading into those wild, weedy spots as children and finding them forests of wonder.
DW: So you talked about the connection with nature, how that makes the child feel better. But there are also some other aspects that benefit the planet, aren't there?
Children who express higher levels of connection to nature are also going to be more likely to say they are doing things for the natural world. So, a greater sense of connection to nature is related to greater care for nature.
DW: And why is this — what is it about nature that brings such benefits for children?
Nature is full of what we call "loose parts." You know, the dirt you can dig in, the water that you can play in and, you know, put some rocks there and change its course and see the effect of your actions. The tall grass you can build a hut in, and the sticks you drag over and so forth. So just a lot of loose parts for children to creatively decide, "Hmm, I wonder what I can do with this?" And then get busy building their den. And it's not prescribed already by society that this leaf or this flower is for this purpose. So children can decide, "Oh, I think I'll make a beautiful play meal," or whatever it is. They're really creatively using it. And it's endless in those possibilities.
DW: How can children who are raised in urban environments be encouraged to foster this connection with nature?
We need to make it easy. We need to bring nature where they are. We need to have those wild nature play areas right around their homes and around their childcare centers and their schools and naturalize the school grounds.
DW: There's also a kind of a dark side to this childhood connection with nature?
Yes, so since the 1990s, there have been studies that ask children, for example, to draw what they think the world will be like in 50 years or 100 years or when you're raising your own children. Not all children, but a significant proportion, have been drawing dystopias, pictures of environmental breakdown. And they have been saying, when they're asked about their environmental concerns, very distressing things about the animals dying off. Or, "My grandson, it's just too bad he's going to have to experience the end of the world." Or, "it's just not going to be such a great Earth anymore." Statements like that.
DW: That's quite extreme — quite dark, really.
It is. And we see that, of course, erupting in young people's climate strikes across the planet, too. It's worry. It's anxiety. It's sadness. It's fear. It's anger. They express all of those emotions.
DW: Right, and so the question is then how can this anxiety be countered while still cultivating that important connection?
On the good side, one of the things recommended is time in nature because it can help calm us down. And to see that the natural world goes on and the resilience of nature, that's a very important piece. Giving children space to express their feelings, and find out they're not alone. And then it's really critical to show them kind of what you can do that can really make a difference and that other people care about this and other people are trying to do something too, to make the world better.
This interview was conducted by Sonya Diehn and has been edited and condensed for clarity.