Have you taken a good look at American children lately? They’re pudgy. Indeed, nearly 20 percent of them are obese.1 They watch a lot of television and play a lot of video games—over seven and a half hours of electronic entertainment a day if they’re between ages 8 and 18 (infants and toddlers watch about two hours of television a day).2 Four and a half million of them suffer from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), a diagnosis growing an average of 3 percent a year.3 Many experience depression and other mental health maladies; 17 percent take the antidepressant Ritalin. They are myopic and lack vitamin D, which is crucial for calcium absorption and the lack of which is associated with cardiovascular risk factors.4 The electronic media diet has other effects: young children can recognize over 1,000 corporate logos, but few can identify more than a handful of local plant or animal species.
These simple facts resonate so powerfully because many of us feel that today’s children are not as happy as we were. Their lives are increasingly structured. Opportunities for play, especially unstructured, freewheeling, outdoor play, are ever more rare. Fewer and fewer children get to explore the outdoor world and experience the thrill of watching birds or finding a turtle on the other side of a rotting log. Fewer children know about weeding a garden, let alone the special feeling of coming home a bit scratched up and sunburned after a long afternoon of exploring a local creek. Getting your feet wet and hands dirty is fun. There is something ineffably joyous about interacting with the natural world, but, more and more, that bliss is generationally bound, a gift today’s children won’t receive.
Happily, dozens of recent scientific studies suggest that playing outdoors is a simple solution to many of the problems outlined above. Outdoor play is integral to good health. This scientific research supports what environmental reformers have long intuited: that human physical and psychological health is dependent upon access to the natural world. This insight has been one of the most prominent themes of a century and a half of environmentalism. This history suggests that, although much good can be accomplished through comparatively easy reform, creating a society that truly allows our children to thrive will require a more fundamental restructuring.
First the good news: massive health benefits accrue to children who simply play outdoors. Outdoor play lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels.5,6 Obesity rates plummet when children play outside.7 ADHD is reduced by outdoor play. Indeed, even a 20-minute outdoor walk prompts better concentration in children.8 Playing outdoors even reduces childhood myopia.9 Summarizing the extensive scientific literature on outdoor play and children, Sarah-Anne Muñoz concludes that “existing studies . . . suggest that natural environments are salutogenic [i.e., support healing, recovery, and repair] and that promoting and facilitating their use could be an important component in the fight for enhanced public health and reduced health inequalities.”6 Outdoor play is not just fun, it is essential to well-being. As Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, observes, “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health.”10 Crucially, the “nature” that enhances children’s health does not have to be remote wilderness, but rather it can be almost any kind of green space: parks, waterways, backyards, and community gardens.
Progressive Era environmental reformers reached the same conclusion in the early part of the twentieth century. They did not yet have scientific studies that supported their conviction that modern life thwarted health, but they nevertheless understood the costs of a sluggish indoor life. The very popular nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton, for example, bewailed modern living conditions that “turned such a large proportion of our robust, manly, self-reliant boyhood into a lot of flat-chested cigarette smokers, with shaky nerves and doubtful vitality.”11 Nor were boys the only victims. Educator William Gould Vinal contended that modern life made women content “to sit in a stuffy schoolroom, flat-chested and sallow skinned.” The modern woman, “become[s] sluggish, her nerves shriek.” She is thus identified by her “pallid cheeks, pale eyes” and her need for “after dinner pills to assist digestion.” The fundamental cause of such sickly creatures was the “nerve racking pace of today” that removed people from nature’s vital currents.12 The fact that such rhetoric also resonated with illiberal politics—nativism, eugenics, and imperialism—does not negate its fundamental insight concerning the insalubrious effects of much of modern life.
As with contemporary environmentalists, Progressive Era reformers were appalled by the ways that modern life deprived children of contact with nature and thus stifled their psychological growth. Fannie G. Parsons, a pioneer of school gardens in the United States, described urban children as living “encased amid bricks, stone, concrete, trolleys, trucks, and automobiles . . . the blue sky overhead is seldom seen. . . . City children are alienated from their human birthright of trees, fields, and flowers.” The effects of this alienation were both physical and psychological: Parsons reasoned that lack of contact with nature made children “hard and unfeeling.”13 Nature was the antidote to the cold facts of industrial life. As Dietrich Lange, supervisor of nature study in the city schools of St. Paul, Minnesota, put it, free play in the natural world acted “against the narrowing, blinding, specializing of modern life. . . . What better remedy” for these modern maladies, asked Lange, “is there than an introduction into the great and universally true life of nature?”14
For environmentalists of the Progressive Era, a key programmatic answer to the problem of creating a society in which children could thrive was nature study. Nature study was a popular and scholastic movement that used instruction in basic natural history such as plant identification, animal life histories, and school gardens to promote the skills needed to succeed in industrial life and to cultivate the spiritual growth its proponents felt that modern life occluded. Nature study classes bred animals, raised chickens, learned to identify local birds, and watched tadpoles develop into frogs. They planted, grew, and tended gardens whose products they sometimes sold. Nature study took many forms, but all its adherents agreed that children needed to leave the schoolroom to encounter nature—through, say, a garden—rather than merely read about it in books. Nature study pedagogy thus focused on the nature that students encountered in their day-to-day lives. Nor was it only a respite from industrialism. Nature study reformers believed that exploring local nature opened the door to advanced scientific work. As one proponent explained, basic nature study “leads to a knowledge of the sciences of botany, zoology and geology as illustrated in the door-yard, the cornfield, or the woods back of the house.”15,16 At its best, nature study made children into active citizens who were skilled in reasoning and committed workers on behalf of their environments.
These sentiments course through the history of environmental reform. Aldo Leopold decried the ways that modern life distanced people from understanding their dependence upon nature: “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relation with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim.”17 Even more than Leopold, Rachel Carson, perhaps the central figure in the history of modern environmentalism, criticized the ways that modern life separated children from nature. For Carson, the greatest damage was psychological and spiritual. Writing in the Woman’s Home Companion in 1956, Carson insisted that “a child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” We lose the capacity for wonder because modern life encourages “sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial,” which only furthers “the alienation from the sources of our strength.”18 Carson came by these criticisms directly though her nature study childhood. Her mother was, as Carson’s biographer observes, “the perfect nature study teacher” who took young Rachel on near daily trips into the forests near their Pennsylvania home.18 As with her mother and other Progressive Era forebears, Carson worried about the emotional effects of modern life upon the moral development of children: “Only as a child’s awareness and reverence for the wholeness of life are developed can his humanity to his own kind reach its full development.”19
Carson’s concern for moral development directs us toward a larger historical truth: for environmentalists, nature is not only essential to health but to the good life. Such criticism was a staple of conservationist rhetoric. John Muir connected the lack of sympathy to modern alienation. For Muir, modern “people are on the world, not in it; [they] have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them, [but are] undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.”20
Moreover, the damage of being disconnected from the green world does not end with a thwarted child but circulates into a larger nature-hating culture. The estrangement of children from nature thwarts the emotional development that cultivates a sympathetic attachment to the green world. Without interacting with nature, children do not develop empathy for it.
Writing in Outlook magazine, Margaret Morley used the conservation of trees to stress the importance of sympathy to conservation: “A knowledge of tree life, a love for trees, and a knowledge of the reasons for preserving them, if instilled in early years, will make an intelligent interest in trees part of mature life and there will be no difficulty gaining advocates for forest laws when the question is raised.”21
Ernest Thompson Seton was even more forthright in advocating the need to inculcate children with sympathy for nature in order to ensure that they will later become conservationists. In discussing his career, Seton averred that “my chief motive, my most earnest underlying wish, has been to stop the extermination of harmless wild animals, not for their sakes, but for ours. . . . I have tried to stop the stupid and brutal work of destruction by an appeal—not to reason—that has failed hitherto—but to sympathy, and especially to the sympathies of the coming generation.”22
As with the positive health effects of outdoor play, Seton’s intuition can now boast empirical support. Researchers at Cornell University analyzed interviews with 2,000 adults and found that experience with wild nature as children strongly correlated with adult environmentalism. The authors concluded that “encouraging children to become engaged with the natural world, preserving habitats where they can do so, and creating programs and opportunities for this to occur may be critical to the future of healthy children, healthy adults, and a healthy planet.”23
This line of thinking understands that emotional attachments, not knowledge of disembodied facts, drive citizens to work on behalf of environments. Passion motivates political action. This history is summarized by paleontologist Stephen J. Gould’s acute observation that “we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature . . . for we will not fight to save what we do not love.24 The ecologist Stephen Kellert advanced a similar caution: “When people are not emotionally and intellectually attached to buildings, landscapes, and places around them, they will rarely be motivated to commit the resources and energies needed to sustain [them].”25 If we don’t foster the love of nature that motivates and engenders passionate activism, environmentalism will wilt like a drought-ridden prairie. Nor, as Stephen Kellert’s admonition indicates, does the nature we love and help others love need to be the exotic, spectacular nature of wildlife calendars. Backyards, local parks, campuses, and homes deserve just as much protection as far-away lands. Indeed, they may deserve more, for they are the environments that fashion so much of our love—or indifference—toward the wider natural world.
A central solution to the environmental crisis, then, suggests itself. Like our Progressive Era forebears, environmental activists need to encourage children to love nature by letting them romp, frolic, explore, and play outdoors. Take your children outside and have some fun. Go fishing, fossil hunting, and berry picking. Watch birds and catch butterflies. The opportunities for these activities exist in daily life and family vacations, camps, and weekend trips. Remember, too, the structural changes that need to take place for all children to have these opportunities. Kids need places to explore. Push your community to invest in green space, parks, playgrounds, gardens, and organizations that take children outside. Lead a trip yourself. Seize local opportunities: rails to trails, community gardens, or brownfields being remade green. Many educators are already engaging in contemporary nature study: numerous schools have excellent outdoor play spaces, and some even spend hours outside each day, becoming “forest kindergartens.”26,27 Even in an age of diminished budgets and onerous standardized testing, schoolchildren can venture outside to explore, garden, watch birds or butterflies, or just play.
As readily as we can build upon these existing opportunities, more fundamental change is needed. Like Progressive Era educators, we must invest in environmental education. Explain the health effects of outdoor activity to your local school board, and make sure the curriculum includes free outdoor play in green spaces for young children and outdoor science activities for older students. Work to ensure that environmental education focuses on solutions and does its best to develop the sense of wonder. Also, environmentalists should support the No Child Left Inside Act of 2009 (HR 2054)—introduced by Congressman Paul Sarbanes with 122 cosponsors—which supports environmental education through teacher training and the development of interdisciplinary curricula. These efforts won’t solve the ecologic crisis. Climate disruption, overfishing, habitat destruction, and the poisoning of the planet all demand fundamental changes in human behavior. But it is difficult to imagine any of those problems being solved without an informed, engaged, and sympathetic public readied to act by an environmental education that has bestowed on them both technical knowledge and a moral code.
Finally, contemporary environmentalists can also learn from the past by embracing the importance of nature study’s thoroughgoing criticisms of modern life. Nature study was a product of its time and occasionally reflected ugly fin de siècle assumptions about race superiority and, more broadly, a lack of meaningful understanding of the ways that class, ethnicity, race, and gender forestalled opportunities to interact with the green world. Yet these severe shortcomings should not cause us to overlook the insightful, vociferous, and scathing indictment of industrial modernity that remains one of the most important contributions of environmentalism to public discourse. The narrow instrumentalism and blind consumerism that crowd out other more fully human ways of being in the world should remain a staple of environmental criticism. Environmental rhetoric has always condemned pollution and alienation from nature and offered positive visions of the good life. We need to continue to promote the simple truth that human health requires healthy environments and the larger nature study truth that the good life requires them too. Children deserve nothing less.