Growing an Environmental Ethic in the Backyard

Father and son fishingYou can see the benefits of outside time written all over a child’s face: rosy cheeks on a chilly-day hike, wide-eyed wonder at a hovering hummingbird, a joyful grin brought on by swirling snowflakes or a glorious mud puddle.

Though it’s not quite as obvious, the natural world may also benefit from this interaction. Really! Research suggests that plenty of time spent outside in childhood is key to developing an environmental ethic. And an environmental ethic leads individuals to make choices with positive effects on our environment.

A classic study in environmental education looked at the ”
significant life experiences” of a group of adults who had chosen environmental careers. What was the common thread in all of their stories? Frequent childhood experiences in the outdoors–particularly unstructured playtime in wild places. Another important factor: a mentor–parent, teacher, or other adult–who modeled environmental attitudes and behaviors. In 2006, Cornell University released a study that supports a similar conclusion. A survey of more than 2,000 adults found a strong link between participating in “wild” nature activities in childhood (such as playing in the woods, hiking, camping, and fishing) and environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood.

The message is clear. Today’s green hour may help shape tomorrow’s green spaces, green products, and green lifestyles. It all starts with young children and a focus on the wonder and joy of the natural world. Later, these same children may ask challenging questions about ecological relationships, weigh the environmental costs and benefits of life decisions, and fervently fight to protect the places they have grown to love.

For more, see the Cornell study.