In a study with four-year-olds, Native American children (both rural and urban) were more than twice as likely as non-Native American children to take the perspectives of animals in their play.

I read about something today that may seem like a small thing to know in the midst of all the news in our lives. But perhaps, deep down inside it, you’ll find a very profound thought and idea.

This small item came from a study conducted at Northwestern University in Illinois. The findings state that four-year-old, rural Native American children are more likely to talk and act out activities with a forest diorama play set than four-year-old children from urban Native American communities and urban non-Native American communities. But what’s really interesting to me is another result from the study: that when playing, four-year-old Native American children are more apt to put themselves in the personas of animals than four-year-old non-Native American children.

I think that inability or unwillingness of most of us to put ourselves in the “shoes” of wildlife—which apparently starts at a very early age—could be a factor in why, on the precipitous edge of the sixth mass extinction, we are failing to do what we need to do to preserve the Earth’s current biodiversity.

According to World Wildlife Fund, a century ago there were probably more than 230,000 orangutans, but the Bornean orangutan is now estimated at 104,700 (endangered) and the Sumatran orangutan at 7,500 (critically endangered). ©Brad Josephs

“I’m thirsty,” says the eagle

Teams of researchers from the American Indian Center in Chicago, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Northwestern University and the University of Washington collaborated for this study, which was published in the Journal of Cognition and Development on November 8, 2017. The participants were three groups of four-year-olds: rural Native Americans, urban Native Americans and urban non-Native Americans.

Each of these groups was presented with a forest diorama that included toy representations of animals and plants. The children’s playtime was divided into segments, which were coded for types of actions and for types of talk.

The children from all three groups actively engaged with the diorama in both realistic and imaginative play and were, according to the study, “sensitive to ecological relations. In addition, Native American children talked at least as much as the non-Native American children, a finding that challenges widespread characterizations of Native American children as less talkative and possessing smaller vocabularies.”


Native American children talked as if they were the toy animals, saying, “I’m thirsty!” while pretending that an eagle figurine was flying to a pond.

What struck me most, however, was the discovery that Native American children (both rural and urban) were more than twice as likely as non-Native American children to take the perspective of animals in their play. For example, Native American children talked and played as if they were the animals, such as saying “I’m thirsty!” while making a toy eagle fly to a pond or by mimicking the bird’s actions by flapping their own arms like wings.

“Values need to be shifted,” says the researcher

This deficit in wildlife relatability in non-Native American children may show some insight into the results from another paper published in the journal Conservation Biology on February 13, 2017. Michael Manfredo, a social psychologist at Colorado State University, began his inquiry by asking “Why do people seem unconcerned about the unprecedented loss of biodiversity, and why does society fail to act in the face of calamitous predictions?”

What Manfredo found, as stated in the study’s abstract, was that “deliberate efforts to orchestrate value shifts for conservation are unlikely to be effective. Instead, there is an urgent need for research on values with a multilevel and dynamic view that can inform innovative conservation strategies for working within existing value structures.”


Keeping the Earth rich in biological abundance and diversity will require a deeper knowledge of human psychology.

Simply put, values are extremely resistant to change. No amount of conservationist messaging aimed at inculcating a sense of care and responsibility extending beyond our own species will shift ingrained values. And right now, unfortunately, a great many people don’t prioritize the environment as an important concern relative to other issues in their lives. I think now, after reading the Northwestern study, that those values needed to be instilled in childhood, before we were four years old.

What we’ve learned in the past few decades of the Environmental Movement is that preserving an Anthropocene epoch rich in biological abundance and diversity isn’t just a matter of knowing what wildlife species and habitats need to be protected and then sending out to the general public the facts of the matter. It will require a deeper understanding of individual and social psychology. We need to know the route to take to change people’s values, and we need to learn how to put ourselves in the claws, hooves, paws and talons of other beings on the planet—something we may have forgotten or never learned how to do at a very young age.

Maybe that study involving the four-year-old children isn’t such an insignificant thing, after all.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,