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«Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences to Adult Environmentalism1 Nancy M. Wells Department of Design and ...»

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Children, Youth and Environments 16(1), 2006

Nature and the Life Course:

Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences

to Adult Environmentalism1

Nancy M. Wells

Department of Design and Environmental Analysis

Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center

Cornell University

Kristi S. Lekies

Department of Human Development

Cornell University

Citation: Wells, Nancy M. and Kristi S. Lekies. (2006). “Nature and the Life

Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences to Adult Environmentalism.” Children, Youth and Environments 16(1): 1-24. Retrieved [date] from http://www.colorado.edu/journals/cye/.

Comment on This Article Abstract This paper examines connections between childhood involvement with the natural environment and adult environmentalism from a life course perspective. Approximately 2,000 adults age 18-90 living in urban areas throughout the United States were interviewed with respect to their childhood nature experiences and their current, adult attitudes and behaviors relating to the environment. Model testing and cross-validation procedures using structural equation modeling suggest that childhood participation with nature may set an individual on a trajectory toward adult environmentalism. Specifically, childhood participation in “wild” nature such as hiking or playing in the woods, camping, and hunting or fishing, as well as participation with “domesticated” nature such as picking flowers or produce, planting trees or seeds, and caring for plants in childhood have a positive relationship to adult environmental attitudes. “Wild nature” participation is also positively associated with environmental behaviors while “domesticated nature” experiences are marginally related to environmental behaviors.

Keywords: life course, childhood, nature, environmental attitudes, environmental behaviors © 2006 Children, Youth and Environments Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences… 2 Introduction When I was in fifth and sixth grade my family owned a small log cabin on a lake in the mountains of Colorado…. I spent a lot of time by myself in the woods, building cabins, making up stories, and feeding birds and squirrels. I would sit for hours waiting for animals to approach and eat from my hands. This… made me an animal advocate.

- respondent, Corcoran 1999, p. 211 The Life Course Perspective The life course perspective examines individual lives as sets of interwoven pathways or trajectories that together tell a life story (Bronfenbrenner 1995;

Bronfenbrenner and Morris 1998; Elder 1995; Moen, Elder and Lüscher 1995;

Wheaton and Gotlib 1997). Each individual has a career or work trajectory, a family trajectory, a health trajectory, as well as various other trajectories or life paths. Early experiences can set a person on a particular trajectory toward an outcome, which will persist unless a turning point occurs, resulting in a shift to a different trajectory. For example, with respect to the health trajectory, evidence from life course research indicates that 80 percent of children who grow up in low socioeconomic status (SES) households are set on a trajectory toward an adulthood of being overweight or obese with the associated health risks—compared with 40 percent of those raised in higher SES homes (Olson, Bove and Miller 2005). While the life course perspective has been employed to examine issues associated with poverty (Rank and Hirschl 2005), health (Wethington 2005), housing tenure (Kendig 1990), career (Kim and Moen 2001; Wethington 2002), and family life (Moen and Erickson 1995), the life course approach has not been applied to examine pathways to environmental attitudes and behaviors.

How might childhood interaction with the natural environment begin to shape a life course trajectory with respect to environmental concerns and ecological actions?

What specific activities or events in one’s youth are likely to put a person on a trajectory toward later life commitment to environmentally-conscious behaviors and attitudes? While a variety of studies have explored children’s relationships to the natural environment and some researchers have specifically examined the influence of significant life events among dedicated environmentalists, little research attention has targeted the issues posed here. These questions have compelling implications in terms of the formation of future generations’ ecological values, protection and preservation of the environment, and the long-term viability of environmentally sustainable cultures. This research begins to shed light on these issues by using structural equation modeling to examine long-term linkages between childhood nature experiences and adult environmentalism among a large, representative sample of adults from the general population. This paper builds on three areas of prior research: 1) studies examining the effects of outdoor play and access to nature; 2) research examining the efficacy of environmental education programs, and 3) significant life experiences research that focuses on the influential role of early nature experiences among environmental professionals.

Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences… 3

Childhood Exposure to the Natural Environment

Outdoor Play and Access to Nature With the increasing concern about environmental degradation (Starke 2005;





Oskamp 2000) and concurrent cautions regarding children’s diminishing affiliation with and time spent in nature (Louv 2005), an exploration of linkages between childhood connection with the natural environment and adult environmentalism is indeed timely. While a number of studies have documented that exposure to nature has beneficial effects on children’s psychological or cognitive well-being in the relatively short term (Faber Taylor et al. 1998; Faber Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan 2001; Faber Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan 2002; Wells 2000; Wells and Evans 2003), and others describe children’s affinity for the natural environment (Chawla 1988;

Korpela 2002; Moore 1986; Sobel 1993; Sebba 1995), relatively little research has examined the long-term influence of childhood contact with nature, particularly in terms of environmentalism outcomes over the life course.

The few studies that do examine longer-term associations between childhood time in nature and later outcomes related to environmentalism include a wide range of dependent variables. Several of these studies examine outcomes in adolescence or early adulthood. For example, Bixler, Floyd and Hammitt (2002) examined the relation between play environments prior to age ten and adolescents’ environmental preferences within the domains of education, recreation and work.

Results support the idea that childhood play location influences later interest in wildlands, environmental preferences, outdoor recreation, and occupations in outdoor environments. Adolescents who, as children, had more often played in wilderness areas were more likely to prefer a wildland walking path than those who had mostly played in the yard before the age of ten. Those who played in wilderness areas also had greater tolerance for living without modern comforts when presented with a hypothetical scenario and had the greatest preference for outdoor occupations. Chipeniuk’s (1995) research examined associations between childhood foraging and later environmental knowledge. People who reported having foraged the greatest breadth of things—from acorns, arrowheads, and cattails, to fireflies, fish, and turtles—in childhood had, as teenagers, better knowledge of biodiversity. Ewert, Place and Sibthorp (2005) examined the relation between early-life outdoor experiences and environmental attitudes in early adulthood. Data collected by surveying undergraduate students indicated that appreciative outdoor activities (e.g., time outdoors enjoying nature), consumptive outdoor activities (e.g., hunting and fishing), media exposure (e.g., books and television), and witnessing negative environmental events (e.g., seeing a special outdoor area be developed) during one’s youth were predictive of later life ecocentric versus anthropocentric beliefs.

Two prior studies examine connections between childhood exposure to nature and adult attitudes about nature or plants. Based on a questionnaire administered to German adults (including both members of the general population and members of environmental protection organizations), Kals, Schumacher and Montada (1999) reported a modest but significant correlation between time spent in nature from age 7 to 12 and adulthood “indignation about insufficient nature protection.” Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences… 4 Indignation about protecting nature, in turn, is predictive of willingness to engage in nature-protective behaviors. Lohr and Pearson-Mims (2005) examined the relation between childhood contact with nature and adult attitudes toward plants.

Results indicated that childhood activities such as picking vegetables, planting trees, and taking care of plants as well as having grown up living next to a garden or flower bed were among the most significant predictors of adulthood beliefs that “trees are calming” and “trees have personal meaning,” as well as having taken a gardening class in the prior year. Other predictors included having spent time outdoors with trees or in parks during childhood. Together, these studies suggest that children’s playtime in the natural environment as well as other experiences impact later life attitudes, knowledge, or behaviors regarding the environment.

Other research examines the effects of more structured activities such as environmental education programs.

Environmental Education Numerous studies have assessed the efficacy of environmental education programs (for review see Rickinson 2001). This research tends to focus on whether environmental education programs bring about change in knowledge and attitudes.

Typically, these assessments compare participants to non-participants or examine pre-intervention versus post-intervention environmental knowledge, attitudes, or sensitivity scores within a fairly short time frame (e.g., Armstrong and Impara 1991; Pooley and O’Connor 2000; Ramsey and Hungerford 1989). For example, Jaus (1982) examined the effectiveness of a ten-week environmental education program addressed to fifth graders. He found significant differences in environmental attitude scores of the participants compared to a control group of students who did not take part in the program. When the control group subsequently received the same instruction, they also showed significantly more positive environmental attitudes, in comparison with the pre-test. Cross-sectional data from Kellert (1985) indicates that children who primarily learned about animals in the context of school or at the zoo were generally less appreciative, less knowledgeable, and less concerned about animals than were children who engaged in bird watching, hunting, or belonged to animal-related clubs. While many environmental education studies focus on knowledge and/or attitudes, some examine environmental behaviors as well. Ramsey and Hungerford (1989) found that an “issue investigation and action training” (IIAT) program among seventh graders yielded significant changes in overt environmental behaviors as well as in outcomes related to knowledge and sensitivity. One aspect notably lacking from the environmental education literature is examinations of long-term efficacy of programs beyond days, weeks, or months. A greater understanding of how environmental education programs might influence individuals’ environmental attitudes and behaviors over years, decades and lifetimes would indeed be valuable.

Significant Life Experiences Significant life experiences research is an area within the field of environmental education that has attempted to explore connections between childhood experiences with nature and adult environmental commitment by employing autobiographical reminiscence. This work bears some resemblance to a life course Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences… 5 approach, although the studies typically employ qualitative methods only and focus exclusively on environmental professionals or activists. These studies do suggest that childhood experience with nature plays a critical role in setting such individuals on a trajectory toward environmentalism.

In the first study of its kind, Tanner (1980) asked 45 dedicated conservationists to describe formative influences in their lives. Hunting, fishing and bird watching during childhood or adolescence were activities most often mentioned by individuals who specified the influence of outdoor activities. Tanner (1980, 23) states that “youthful experience of outdoors and relatively pristine environments emerges as a dominant influence in these lives.” Several subsequent studies have provided support for Tanner’s findings. Peterson and Hungerford (1981) and Corcoran (1999) posed similar questions to environmental educators in the United States;

Palmer (1993) studied environmental educators in the United Kingdom; Chawla (1999) conducted open-ended structured interviews with established environmentalists in the U.S. and Norway; and Sward (1999) studied El Salvadoran environmental professionals. The single most important influence on individuals that emerged from these studies was many hours spent outdoors in natural habitats during childhood or adolescence—alone or with others. Other important childhood experiences included the example of parents, teachers, or other adults who fostered an interest in nature; scouting and camping; hunting and fishing;

witnessing the destruction or alteration of landscapes or habitats; and media or books.

The significant life experiences literature provides further evidence that childhood nature experiences may impact later life environmentalism. However, the exclusive focus on individuals engaged in environmental careers or activism limits the generalizability of these findings. There is need for further research examining the long-term effects of childhood experiences with nature among the general population.



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