My mother grew up in a rural area in Wisconsin. On our walks when I was young—whether it was near her childhood home or where we then lived in the city—she would tell me the common names of all the birds and flowers that we saw. Those memories still impress me to this day.
Of course, this was long before any of us had even heard of the terms “climate change,” “nature deficit disorder,” or “sixth mass extinction.” I believe that in the days before we lived such indoor lives—just three or four decades ago—knowing about nature seemed to all of us, well, natural.
Since then, however, the effects of climate change have impacted all our lives, and education about nature has become not only “natural” but imperative. On top of that, we now know how important having exposure to nature is to a child’s health. In fact, a new, massive review of data from nearly 300 studies is incontrovertible proof. The presence of green spaces near homes and schools is strongly associated with improved mental health and physical activity in kids.
But, as parents or other concerned family members, does coaxing kids outside and off their social media sound a bit too daunting? You needn’t worry because nature has already done some of the work for us. According to a large-scale study of twins in the United Kingdom, a person’s appreciation of nature and tendency to visit natural spaces are heritable characteristics.
Why should we teach kids about nature?…
While my mom and I regarded the walks we took decades ago primarily as bonding experiences and fond recollections, today researchers are warning that the deepening environmental crisis will continue to worsen if there is not a significant investment in and support for environmental and science education. In a paper titled Scientists’ Warnings and the Need to Reimagine, Recreate and Restore Environmental Education, published in the journal Environmental Education Research on June 6, 2021, the authors state that governments and other organizations must direct more funding to education innovation in response to trends in the deteriorating states of the climate, biodiversity and ecosystems. Such reforms, they say, would help young people address the complex, dynamic and interlinked issues of our contemporary situation and supply the cornerstone for the environmental and social changes needed in the future.
Organizations, such as UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) have said that environmental education needs to be a core component of all education systems at all levels by 2025, and it must be supported by those in the arts, humanities, social sciences—and wider society. Only then can we help people identify fake information and ideologies, and to understand and respond appropriately to the climate emergency.
Unfortunately, many international surveys show that several governments continue to fail to invest enough in environmental and sustainability education across preschool, school, college and university settings. The researchers suggest that global leaders should be discussing how to recreate, reimagine and restore environmental education to reduce the consequences of the environmental crisis and that countries should embed environmental and science education throughout society in ways that make sense locally.
Lifelong learning and nonschool venues, such as popular activities and outdoor education centers, must also play a role. And flagship environmental and science communication documentaries, such as those by Sir David Attenborough, have the ability to whet people’s appetites for more information about nature from credible sources.
The researchers conclude that only by giving environmental and sustainability education a priority status will it be possible to radically alter the course we are currently on, and thus demonstrate to ourselves and future generations that sufficient heed was given to the warnings.
… Because a familiarity with nature is not only good for the environment, it’s good for kids’ health …
Of course, teaching children about nature is not only good for the health of the planet, but for their health, too. The evidence keeps adding up.
A review of data from nearly 300 studies, conducted by Washington State University and University of Washington scientists, that was published in the journal Pediatrics on October 1, 2021, found that the presence of green spaces near homes and schools is strongly associated with improved mental and physical health outcomes in kids. Importantly, some of the data examined the effects for kids from historically marginalized communities and showed that the benefits of nature exposure may be even more pronounced for them.
But not all kids are able to have regular contact with nature. Increased screen time and more sedentary, indoor lifestyles get in the way. And some families have few nearby parks and lack easy access to outdoor spaces. Those with limited resources and transportation options find getting to green spaces and parks challenging.
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics routinely recommends “outdoor playtime,” definitions of the term vary. The review authors point out that not all time spent outside is equal; a parking lot is not a park, and an urban playground without natural elements is not a garden. In the context of the nation’s urgent public health crises around physical inactivity and poor mental health, fundamental sociodemographic inequities in access to nature, and the COVID-19 pandemic, they hope that their work will help lead to improved access to nature for all kids, in addition to reducing health disparities in childhood.
… And, luckily, a love of nature is partially inheritable
I inherited a lot of things from my mother, but one of them that might be surprising is a love of nature. According to a large-scale study of United Kingdom twins published in the open-access journal PLOS Biology in February 2022, a person’s appreciation of nature and his or her tendency to visit natural spaces are heritable characteristics.
Researchers surveyed 1,153 pairs of twins about how they experience nature, asking them to rate their familiarity with and desire to be in nature, and how frequently they visit natural spaces, such as private gardens and public parks.
They found that identical (monozygotic) twins, who share almost 100 percent of their genes, were more like each other in their orientation towards nature and how frequently they visited nature compared to fraternal (dizygotic) twins, who share around 50 percent of their genetic material. Heritability ranged from 46 percent for nature orientation to 34 percent for frequency of garden visits, suggesting a moderate influence of genetics regarding how people experience nature.
However, environmental factors still explained more than half of the differences between individuals. People living in urban environments tended to have less nature experiences due to limited access, highlighting the importance of availability in shaping nature-seeking behaviors. Heritability also declined with age, indicating that genetics may become less influential as people get older and experience a unique set of environmental conditions.
This groundbreaking study, though, provides the first evidence for a genetic component to both our predispositions towards nature and our tendency to visit natural spaces. Nature-oriented people may actively seek out nature even if it means traveling from their homes, but diverse urban planning is needed to provide access to natural spaces for all, the authors say.
By now, we should all be aware that access to nature—and the benefits that come with it—are a necessity, not a nicety. Ensuring that environmental education is coherent, fit-for-purpose, funded appropriately, relevant, and available to current and future generations within and beyond curriculums will be crucial as we head into the future.
I’m quite sure my mom wasn’t thinking about all that as we took our walks together so long ago. She was just doing what came naturally. And, I’m still on the fence about whether loving nature is something that’s inherent in me, or if it comes from a lifetime of personal experiences.
I do know, though, that I feel lucky to have had a mother that was such a good teacher—and contributor to my genes.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,