A Child’s Perspective on Nature
As grown-ups, we have our own ways of connecting with nature. Typically, our relationship with nature stems from the experiences we have as children and is shaped by the different directions our lives take us. Adults tend to be set in their ways, and have developed perspectives on everything from political views, family, and the environment around us. While it is hard for most of us to change these preconceived notions, most adults strive to keep an open mind.
Children’s perspectives, on the other hand, are blank canvases. A child has not yet formed opinions about all kinds of topics, including nature. Children’s views and opinions are often inherited from their family and are influenced by the adults around them.
When it comes to nature, most children wander with no expectations. To a child, the outdoors is a brand-new world, wide open for exploration and discovery. Exposing children to the natural world can be a life-changing experience. For many children, being in a natural space is like playing in the most massive playroom, where they get to decide what the world around them is going to be like. A child’s imagination has no limits.
In a park or a forest, a child is likely to see nature as a place without any rules apart from the fundamental values they carry with them. There are no decrees against climbing or horseplay, no prohibitions on running or screaming. Outside exploration enhances children’s development by providing a world they can explore and move about freely. There are even opportunities to enhance fine and gross motor skills through climbing trees or finding ants.
Their perspective can be awe-inspiring, and a reminder to us as adults that we have lost our relationships with nature. Where grown-ups see a copse of trees and a few rocks, children see friends and a towering fortress.
Today, many children are cooped up in sterile homes, shuffled to and from activities in a car. As the generations pass, they spend less and less time outdoors. A recent UK study commissioned by the National Trust found that children spend half the time playing outside that their parents did.
Being in nature provides children with a stark contrast to what has become the modern everyday life of the “indoor generation.” Parents too recognize that their children are losing their nature connections, and the associated benefits of being outdoors. Parents report that when their children spend time outdoors they are happier, more focused, get sick less often and even have more confidence.
Through teaching children in our outdoor program, we have been able to witness first-hand the transformative effects nature can have on them. We have watched their unique perspectives on nature evolve through seasons, weather, and various life cycles of the forest. We are fortunate to follow these young participants throughout the year and see the way they each connect with the natural world – sometimes in ways that we ourselves missed.
These children relate to the way nature is growing around them, as it mirrors their own growth. The same child who marks her height on the doorway comes to class with a mental marking of how tall a single tree was one month earlier. During spring, when the weather finally turns and our park explodes with growth, the children are astonished. Knotted branches turn into blackberry brambles, shrubs once barley two feet tall now tower over even the adults. The kids’ realization that that they are not the only ones growing broadens their little worlds and deepens their connection to nature. The trees, plants, animals, and the forest are friends that they get to grow with.
When it comes to sharing, children are remarkably astute in expressing how they experience nature. They can talk about their experiences with surgical precision, despite their limited vocabulary. The most common experience they report is that being in nature makes them happy. Nature has boundaries, but no rules on behavior. You can get dirty, you can be daring and push yourself. A scrape from a branch doesn’t hurt, it’s a badge of honor, or a kiss from a friend. Nature is not a confined, stagnant environment like a house. It is alive, it breathes and changes, it responds, and children can interact with it more meaningfully than with the stuff of our man-made world.
To children, nature is freedom, independence, happiness, and love – something we adults seek in life, but forget its source. Kids know the answer, and remind us with their curious play.