For me, the dream was spurred by trips to my grandparents’ farm in Kentucky, where I had the opportunity to chisel away at limestone rocks, excavating the fragmented fossils of tiny marine animals. The activity offered an escape, something to carry me away from the boring talk of grown-ups and off into some wild land. When I tired of excavating, I would go and explore that wild land. I would take long walks to long-forgotten corners of the more than 60-acre farm, pretending to be on an expedition and making up adventures. Sometimes I would walk on my own, sometimes with an adult by my side. At the time, that kind of freedom to explore the world seemed like a normal part of childhood.
But now that I am grown up, and live in a densely populated city, I realize the uniqueness of that experience. More than half the world's population now lives in urban areas, which means that, combined with the loss of nature from urban sprawl, fewer children than ever have the chance to walk out their back doors and into a natural world of discovery.
The freedom of childhood exploration came to mind as I read through an annotated bibliography of studies on children’s experiences with nature that was compiled by the Children & Nature Network and the IUCN Commission on Education and Communication. The studies featured in the report indicate that children’s exposure to nature has become increasingly restricted, largely because of parents' safety concerns. But it underscores, too, the importance of spending time outdoors, which benefits children’s health and development, as well as children’s attitudes toward nature.
The magnitude by which parents’ concerns about safety have increased in recent decades was reflected most dramatically in a study in New South Wales, Australia, concerning intergenerational differences in children’s independent play. The study revealed that in the late 1990s only about three percent of children enjoyed the freedom to play on their own, down from about 33 percent just a generation earlier. Similar trends have been documented elsewhere, such as in the United Kingdom, where nearly half of parents interviewed in 2010 did not allow their children to play outside without adult supervision. The loss of safe play areas was cited as a major contributing factor for safety concerns in both Australia and the United Kingdom.
But while adult supervision can more or less ensure safety, it may also have a negative impact on children’s creativity and enthusiasm for play. This may be because children feel inhibited when adults lead activities. In an observational study of preschools in South Carolina, for instance, young children were found to engage in less-intense physical activity when play was initiated by an adult than when play was initiated by the children themselves. The findings suggest that, if adults lead most activities (which they were found to do in this particular study), then children will spend more time being sedentary, which over the long-term could have implications for childhood obesity.
What many kids need is greater access to nature, to places such as parks and nature preserves, where they can safely lead their own expeditions of discovery and explore without restriction. In the absence of those places, those of us who are parents need to make sure that we spend time outdoors with our children, participating in their adventures but allowing them to lead. Through such activities, our children will not only benefit physically but also gain confidence and begin to cultivate a lasting appreciation for nature.