Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Why Is It Important For Children To Experience Nature?

Why Is It Important For Children To Experience Nature?
Why is it important for children to have a connection to nature? How have changes in our culture and our built environment reduced our ability to access the natural world? We speak to Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies professor Stephen Kellert about the research he's done on the role of nature in the evolution of human biology and culture. We also discuss how "biolphilic design" can be used to change the way our cities are built to increase our connection to nature.

Why is it important for children to have a connection to nature? How have changes in our culture and our built environment reduced our ability to access the natural world? We speak to Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies professor Stephen Kellert about the research he's done on the role of nature in the evolution of human biology and culture. We also discuss how "biolphilic design" can be used to change the way our cities are built to increase our connection to nature.


Stephen Kellert, Tweedy/Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and Senior Research Scholar at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.


Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Everybody says it's a good idea to get out into nature once in a while, breathe in some fresh air, enjoy the big sky and greenery. What if it's more than a good idea? What if exposure to the natural world is something that human beings actually need to insure physical, mental, and emotional health? That's just what my guest, professor Stephen Kellert has been studying, his research is based on the premise that there's a deep instinctive need in humans, especially children, to bond with nature and living systems, a need that's being obstructed by our modern way of life. I'd like to introduce my guest, Stephen Kellert is professor emeritus of social ecology and senior research scholar at the Yale university of forestry and environmental studies. Professor Kellert, welcome to These Days.

STEPHEN KELLERT: Thank you. Glad to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we'd like to join our listeners to join the conversation. What have you done to get your kids outside into nature? Is it hard to find a place to enjoy the natural world? Give us a call with your questions and your comments, our number is 1-888-895-5727. Of so professor Kellert, why is it important that humans, and as I say, particularly children spend time out doors connecting with nature?

STEPHEN KELLERT: Well, it's a good question and a very complicated one.



STEPHEN KELLERT: Yeah. To answer, and let me just say that nature is all around us, not just outside. And we can define nature as the nonhuman world. And to the extent that people spend a larger amount of their time, the average person nowadays spends 90 percent of their time indoors, that doesn't relieve the need to have contact with nature, even in the indoor environment. And I know that's a little complicated. And I'll say more about that in a moment. But to get to your first request about why it's important, we, you know, as a species issue we evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and the great majority of that human history, 99 percent of it, was in a natural environment. And we developed skills and capabilities in response to the pressures of that natural environment that we call fitness, that is, you know, every species seeks and every individual in our species seeks to be reproductively fit. And we responded to the demands and pressures and requirements of a natural environment. And in a way that advanced our success as a species. And these -- those behaviors which were successful adaptations to the pressures of that natural environment became biologically encoded over time. So we have a biologically based inclination to affiliate with natural systems and processes which became part of our capacity and ability, emotionally and intellectually and physically over time. Now, you could say that while we evolved in one context, but we live in a different one right now, and most of those characteristic, those adaptations might be what could be vestigial, that is that they were functional in the in which they evolved, but are no longer in the current environment in which we live, which is largely a built environment. But there's increasing evidence that suggests that even in the modern world, whether it's attentional capacity or stress relief or critical thinking or problem solving or physical fitness, that the experience of nature helps facilitate these adaptations, these abilities, and even if you work as an investment banker in wall street or you work off the land, that these characteristics of critical thinking and problem solving and imagination and creativity are functional adaptations and that they evolve in response to the most information rich and demanding and challenging environment that we'll ever face which is the natural world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you give us an example of let's say how the natural world challenges our ability to think critically? How would that have developed?

STEPHEN KELLERT: Well, you know, even though we're a creature that's capable of lifelong learning, which is unusual, none the less, as for any creature the most important developmental period is the early years, especially for a biologically encoded tendency, which I'm suggesting this is. And by the way, we call it biophilia, just to give it a name.


STEPHEN KELLERT: Which really means love of nature translated from Latin, but really it's a biological nature to affiliate with nature, which includes strong, positive affection, but it also includes things like fear and the desire to master and control. Well, a young child engaged in play out doors even in the confines of a backyard or relatively modest environment is constantly challenged to adapt, to cope, to master, to create in response to this very, very complex information rich uncertain dynamic, challenging, not always fun, but sometimes fun world that is the natural world. By comparison, even though we have, you know, the benefit of marvelous things like computers today, which are very complex and very challenges, none the less the degree of their complexity and diversity is still by comparison to the everyday world, the nonhuman world, relatively simple. So you think about things we take for granted that kids just magically learn. A sea gull from a Robin from a cardinal from a sparrow. That snow, well, you don't get snow here. But at a certain temperature, rain turns into something else. The clouds and rain and snow all seem to be related. That, you know, flowers have something to do with the reproduction or replacement of plants, that certain insects are okay, and other insects are kind of -- you know, can bite and sting. And it goes on and on and on. And when you think about the variety and complexity of the everyday understanding, you realize how much adaptation and coping and classification and naming that goes on in response to this extraordinarily complex, complicated, diverse world that is beyond our self. You begin to realize how much opportunity there is for children to, as I said, to name, to classify, to problem solve, to create, to think about how to -- you know, critically think and adaptive response to different elements of this dynamic, ambient, changing uncertain, surprising world that is the world of beyond just ourselves as a single species.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And as you say it's right out doors. It can be in your backyard.

STEPHEN KELLERT: It could be in your backyard, it could be out of your window. There's constant response to that very dynamic and ambient world. And ambient is very important because take a look at children's story, for example, for young children, you won't see one pencil and three paper clips and four boxes and 5, I don't know, walls. You'll see things with eyes that move, and even if they're a truck, they'll still have a face.


STEPHEN KELLERT: Or as often as not, they're creatures. Because kids can and will life, and are attracted to life in a sense. And it's a very powerful dynamic that makes it facilitative for learning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm talking with professor Stephen Kellert, and we're talking about his work on biophilia. And that is a theory that we have a deep connection with living systems, and they have influenced our biology and our culture and our evolution and continue to influence us especially when we're young and we're trying to develop our critical thinking skills. And everything that's gonna sustain us through our lives. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We do have a caller on the line. Daniel is calling from Clairemont. And good morning, Daniel, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hello, thank you very much. This is one of my passions and vocations. And I've been an avid hiker for a long time and blessed by seeing all the nature that God created, that's what I believe. And I see when I go out here an openness to many people's soul when is they go out and they get away from the electronics and they just see the nature, when they see the animals, when they see the mountains, when they see the rocks, remember all these things are living things. Now a rock isn't alive, but a rock changes because of the life of a tree and an animal. It's unbelievable how things happen with plant life to our earth. Without the plant life and that life, the whole world, all of the molecular structure does not change, that growth makes a huge beautiful change that we get to see. Walk with him, that's what I go through on Facebook to help people realize that there is nature out there and that they can in some way get out to it and touch it like you can -- I live in Clairemont, you just walk right over to rose canyon or you walk over to Marion bear, and you can get in there and get into nature. Marion bear, you can go there during the hot summer and it is a 30 degrees different temperature. And you get this free air conditioning and you get to see all these beautiful creatures and animals and plants and things that you just can't imagine.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Daniel, thank you for the call, I appreciate it. Kind of exactly what you're talking about. Of.

STEPHEN KELLERT: Yeah, there was so much of what he said that is very meaningful and profound. Let me just say that the notion of biophilia is an inclination to affiliate with life and lifelike processes. And as he indicated, life and nonlife have an intimate connection. Water is not alive, soil is not alive, in a sense, rocks are not alive. Yet the interconnection between life and nonlife is a constant dynamic one, when an ecological system is whole and functional, it gives rise to and supports life. And as he indicated, one can connect with esthetics for example, we tend to take for granted. But so far as we know, the esthetic response to nature, whether it be a beautiful flower or a sunset or a lovely glade or running water, is a universal characteristic. And therefore it's biologically encoded, and if it's biologically encoded, it means it has adaptive value. When you think about esthetics, it elicits our curiosity, our imagination, our creativity, and with cultivation, it's a way in which we learn more about the world around us.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Professor Kellert, you have some really sort of sobering statistics about how much time that kids are not spending in nature, but rather are spending at home, watching television, with their computers, etc. Etc. Tell us about that.

STEPHEN KELLERT: Well, there's lots of different statistics. But the two that I find most disturbing, if you will, is that a generation ago, kids on average spent -- in an average week more than four hours outside, and now it's less than 40 minutes. And conversely, they spend 52 hours a week now, is a statistic which I find astounding, engaged in electronic media in doors, whether it be computers, television or games. Now, this is not an attack on the computer and not an attack on the in door built environment where we spend most of our time or the modern city. These are marvelous features of modern life, but it's a question of balance. And you can experience nature in many ways, you can experience nature outside in a direct way, and self sustaining nature, you can experience is indirectly, if you will, through things that depend upon constant human input like a garden or a potted plant or a fountain. Or you can experience it in doors even, and many of our most affirmative indoor environments, our positive indoor environments, bring nature inside, whether it be in views or natural light or shapes or forms that are inspired by nature or natural materials that we use for furniture, and so forth. And computers can be a way in which we can experience nature in a way that we couldn't before?


STEPHEN KELLERT: Well, certainly kids today know more about coral reefs and rain forests than any generation of young people in history just because of the marvelous capacity of computers and television to bring a, you know, the globe into our rooms and into our everyday existence of the irony is that often they know more about the rain forests and the coral reefs than they do about their own backyard or the place in which they live. San Diego here is one of the most biologically rich and diverse and interesting environments, certainly in north America, in our country. And I suspect that the average kid may know very little about that extraordinary richness and diversity. And so it's a question of, again, balance. To spend too hours a week engaged in electronic media and spend less than 40 minutes outside, I would suggest without a great deal data to support it, is an imbalance which is probably dysfunctional. And we need to bring nature in doors, without question, we need to make our environments, our indoor environments more positive and satisfying expression of nature in the indoor environment, but we also need to get, you know, kids and ourselves out doors to a greater degree than before. Because no matter how well we design our indoor environments, it'll never have the diversity, the surprise, the creative characteristics, the color, the esthetic quality, the ambient -- the uncertainty, if you will, the coping dimensions that an out door environment will have. Of.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Good morning, Julie and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I couldn't agree with you more. I'm a mother of three young children, ages a lot, 6, and 2. And my husband and I just started a new routine with our kids of riding our bikes. Imagine that! School is about a mile and a half from our home, the majority of families or neighborhoods do indeed drive their children, get caught in terrible traffic, and it ends up taking them longer. And the benefit, to say the health and mental benefits this we've found for our children is really extraordinary in that they arrive at school much more focused, and with much more energy levels than they used to when they're sitting in the warmth of mommy or daddy's car. Rather, they come to school invigorated, feeling self confident and being aware of the environment around them. We even ride when there's a drizzle. Again, imagine that? . The kids feel a little rain on their skin, and they are in touch with the world. And I just can't stress enough the experience to all experience that they try to do little things like this. If we all would just take the time to either ride bikes or walk outdoors with our children instead of keeping them inside like as if they're museum pieces.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Julie thank you for the call. Thanks so much for calling and telling us about that. We have another caller on the line, Jan is calling from Clairemont.

NEW SPEAKER: How very interesting, the previous caller, how true. On a beautiful day like today, can we appreciate all the things that have been said. But I had a thought and this has to do with the many people that are diagnosed these days with neurological and psychological diseases like bipolar, etc. Etc. Does the doctor, and I don't know his name because I just tuned in.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure. Professor Kellert. I think that I can --

NEW SPEAKER: Can he relate this at all and does he have a therapy?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. Jan's question, we are getting out into the nature, reestablishing our connection with the living systems, is that gonna help neurological problems at all? Any data on that?

STEPHEN KELLERT: There's some data, and we need a lot more. Unfortunately there's so little study and it's only been fairly recent that people have been paying attention. But certainly everything from the seeming epidemic of child obesity to adult diabetes now in children that was very rare before to issues of myopia, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and the therapeutic effects that's been found of exposure to nature among children who have had symptoms of -- or clinical conditions of attention hyperactive disorder, and deficit disorder. So all of this together suggests that there is a -- there's a very significant linkage between this decline in being in touch with the world, as the two callers ago talked about, the connection, experiential connection to nature, the physical exercise associated with the self esteem as that other caller indicated as well. So there's -- I don't think there's any magic bullet, but there's definitely -- and it's very subtle, and it's very contextual, but there's no question that if you can get kids outdoors, that they're gonna be much more physically active, they're gonna be much more critically challenged. They're probably gonna have more considerable opportunities to build their self confidence and self esteem, and managing coping with the environment around them. So there is evidence to suggest that these both physical and mental disabilities that we're seeing growing in children have something to do with this reduction in experiential connection to nature. And let me just put a plug into one of your local people here. Many of you know Richard Louv who's written about what he calls nature deficit disorder is the first to suggest this, it's not a clinically diagnosed disorder. But it does get your attention to this problem. He created a group with Cheryl Charles, called the children nature network, which has been working very hard to reconnect children and nature, especially out door nature. And nay have on their website five annotative bibliographies, an extensive amount of research related to this subject. So if you do want to get more information on the linkages between these physical and mental disabilities and the decline in children's experience of nature, as well as the reverse, the therapeutic effects of reconnecting children with nature, I would recommend taking a look at that website and look at some of those annotated descriptions of the various studies that have been done.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the very short time we have left, professor Kellert, do you find evidence that people are sort of getting this message and changing the way that environments are structured to allow more of a contact with nature for both adults and children?

STEPHEN KELLERT: I don't know. Yes and no. I always think -- I see progress, and then sometimes I feel like it's two baby steps forward, and three giant steps backwards. To me, the most challenging -- the greatest challenge we have in this regard is the urban built environment. The dominant paradigm of design and development of the urban built environment until now has been one that has fostered environmental degradation and separation of people from nature, as well as what could be called placelessness. Because again, it's not just experience of nature, but experience with nature especially with kids in an environment that's familiar and safe and secure. And that's very important. And there's some change that's occurring. But most of our attempt to move towards sustainable design and development has been mostly what I call low impact, trying to mitigate the adverse effects of a natural system instead of really creating a positive, beneficial connection between people and nature in the urban build environment.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're gonna have to end it there. But I want everyone to know that you can hear more from Stephen Kellert, he will be discussing nature and human development tonight at 630, at the San Diego natural history museum. Thank you so much.

STEPHEN KELLERT: You're welcome.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with professor Stephen Kellert, and if you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days.