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15.3.06

Does Childhood Play Make Environmentalists, Or The Other Way Around?

Here's a study whose finding seems so obvious that the authors jump right past a plausible alternative hypothesis.

If you want your children to grow up to actively care about the environment, give them plenty of time to play in the "wild" before they're 11 years old, suggests a new Cornell University study.

"Although domesticated nature activities -- caring for plants and gardens -- also have a positive relationship to adult environment attitudes, their effects aren't as strong as participating in such wild nature activities as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking, fishing and hunting," said environmental psychologist Nancy Wells, assistant professor of design and environmental analysis in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell.


I don't doubt that the obvious mechanism -- that playing in nature at a formative age causes you to learn to love nature, and hence become an environmentalist -- is at work. But in addition to that causal link, I think that there's an existential one as well.

The idea of learning to love nature as a child is a powerful one -- just look at the biography of any notable environmentalist. So I think there's a strong tendency for people who end up environmentalists to emphasize the role of nature in their upbringing. It's a constant feature of the human condition that we weave our memories, combined with various cultural assumptions, into a story about our own past. Nature play will end up featuring prominently in an environmentalist's internal autobiography. And so such a person will respond more strongly to survey questions asking them to recall aspects of their childhood. The value placed on "wildness" by modern mainstream environmentalism may also explain some of the lessened influence of "domesticated" and "structured" types of engagement with nature, like gardening and Scouting.

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