Playing Outside Enhances Kids’ Love of Nature and Animals

Exposure to the great outdoors could also influence kids’ ideas about the importance of conservation

Photo: 68/Ocean/Corbis

Researchers have been sounding the alarm for years that kids—especially those who grow up in cities—are spending less time out in nature. Past studies have shown that exposure to the outdoors increases kids’ physical and mental health. There’s evidence that the benefits go both ways, too: adults often cite positive experiences in childhood as their motivation for caring about the environment.

On the flip side, some researchers wonder if a lack of exposure to nature might lead to apathy or even biophobia—active dislike of nature because it is perceived as dirty or potentially harmful, for example. Few studies have really drilled into how this trio of time outdoors, love of animals and a desire to conserve the environment actually relate.

Researchers in China decided to investigate these questions at 15 urban and rural elementary schools. More than 1,100 nine and 10-year-old kids took part in the study. The researchers asked them to fill out questionnaires reporting how often they spent time outside doing various activities. They also showed the kids 12 different taxidermied animals, ranging from chipmunks to sparrows to frogs to slugs. The researchers asked the kids how they felt about each animal and carefully recorded their reactions. Finally, they asked the kids if they were interested in protecting animals. Putting it all together, the scientists published their results in the journal Biological Conservation.

The rural kids, not surprisingly, had more contact with nature than the urban ones. The more time the kids spent outside, the more favorably they reacted to the animals. Those who loved animals, likewise, were more likely to say they were willing to help protect them. A few other interesting trends emerged, too, such as the fact that girls showed more biophobia than boys—most likely due to societal pressures that encourage girls to squeal at the sight of snakes and slimy things, the researchers think.

The study—the first one ever conducted on this subject in China—helped shed light on some of the factors that might influence whether a child goes on to protect and value nature or to ignore or even exploit it. “Our findings affirm the idea that a decline in human interactions with the natural world, known as the ‘extinction of experience,’ is a threat to the conservation of biodiversity,” they write.

The good news is that this piece of the biophilia puzzle can easily be amended, if only teachers and parents took the time to introduce kids to the great outdoors and encourage them to play outside.

The bad news, however, is that if things continue as usual the authors warn that “urbanization such as that occurring currently in China has the potential for causing a vicious cycle, with reduced amounts of green space near humans diminishing people’s value for the nature that is left.” The findings, they add, likely apply beyond the scope of China—to any country where children spend more time indoors than out. 

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