Creating Future Environmentalists: Let them Play in the Woods!

photo by

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!

Bookmark the permalink of this post.

4 Responses to Creating Future Environmentalists: Let them Play in the Woods!

  1. Anonymous says:

    The results of this study are not at all surprising. Just as kids who “play” develop a better balance and a happier outlook in later life, it stands to reason that the ability to independently explore nature will translate to a more healthy appreciation later on. I was lucky enough to have experienced both sides of this in my own childhood. We lived near enough to the edge of town that we could wander into nature to explore on our own. I also participated in a few different educational nature activities. There is a time a place for these activities – especially for kids who don’t have the luxury of living near natural areas. There was nothing I learned in a class outing that I couldn’t learn in a book, but there’s certainly no comparison to the real thing. However, looking back, my love of the outdoors was developed by playing and exploring on my own. The simple truth is that you can’t tell a child what is interesting. They will figure that out on their own. Allowing them to develop a genuine, personal appreciation of the world around them is the best way to instill an environmental conscience.

  2. Joanna says:

    As an adult who cares deeply about the environment and grew up in an urban area, I believe that children don’t need access to a forest in order to experience the love of the wild. As a child in Washington, DC, I played in a nearby flood prevention creek, that had an ecological system of its own. There were trees shading the creek, and dirt and rocks on the creek floor (so it wasn’t a cement waterway), but it allowed for plenty of open-ended play. Turning over rocks, filling up jars of creek water, etc. Since this was on the East Coast, we didn’t play there in the winter… but our family’s quiet and snowy backyard that consisted of some dirt, one big tree, and a small patch of grass lent itself to lots of creative nature-oriented play. As in many urban areas, there was also a lot of trash. At a young age, I instinctively began pulling the trash out of the creek.

    As I learned while training to be a teacher in Boston, children are drawn to nature if they are given the time to explore. Even if it’s the square of sidewalk cut out in the front of their house where a tree’s been planted, they will be drawn to playing in the square and exploring the tree roots, bugs, etc. I think more important than anything is allowing time for children to explore on their own…. to be given the time to find the tree in the sidewalk for themselves or the flood prevention waterway.

  3. jackie says:

    just entered into a contract with a landowner in the UK to give me sole use of a 100 acre woodland for children to play. Noone else was doing it so I have taken a big personal risk because I agree with the sentiments expressed by you all. I write this because to date very few people have joined in – I thought there would be a flood of people wanting to bring their children to the woods and companies willing to donate tools but alas it remains a trickle. But I live in hope.

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    Wow, Jackie! This sounds wonderful. I wish you luck.