If you want your children to grow up to be adults who are environmentally conscious in mind and deed, you should let them play in nature on their own. Adult-mediated nature activities like scouting and summer camps have no effect in later life. That’s the conclusion from recent research by Nancy Wells and Kristi Lekies of Cornell University.In particular, their findings show that children who participate in “wild” nature before the age of 11 are very likely to have environmental attitudes and exhibit environmental behaviors as adults. “Wild” nature is defined as hiking or playing in the woods, camping, and hunting or fishing.
Children who participate in “domesticated” nature, such as picking flowers or produce, planting trees or seeds, and caring for plants are also likely to exhibit these environmental tendencies as adults, but significantly less so than those who participated in “wild” nature.
Finally, children who participate in environmental education programs – in school, in scouts, at camp, or in community environmental improvement programs – were found to be no more likely to be environmentalists as adults than those who don’t participate. So, this study indicates that environmental education to children has no impact when these children grow up to be adults unless, of course, it makes them more likely to engage in nature on their own.
So, in summary, it’s direct, independent participation in nature that matters for creating environmental attitudes and behaviors. Environmental education should be viewed, then, only as a means toward that end, not an end in and of itself. If all you do is send your kids to scouts and summer camps, and never let them explore on their own in nature before 11, you’re not likely to be creating environmentalists.
Let them play in the woods!