Published: Oct. 1, 2020 By

Whether they’re dealing with smoke from wildfires, living through severe storms, or staying inside because of COVID-19, children are being forced to see the world differently in 2020. How they are learning and what they are learning about the world is quickly changing as many environmental and health threats occur simultaneously. 

Over the past few decades, as climate change and other environmental threats have emerged, their relationship with nature has also changed. Children now spend much more time indoors, and they must grapple with complex negative emotions when learning about the degradation of ecosystems, loss of species and environmental change. 

Louise Chawla, professor emerita in the Program in Environmental Design at CU Boulder and a fellow in CU’s  Community Engagement, Design and Research Center, has been studying the relationship between children and the environment since the late 1970s.

She was recently asked to write a comprehensive literature review for the British Ecological Society journal People and Nature, about how children connect with nature these days.

CU Boulder Today caught up with Chawla to discuss her findings in the context of a year with many environmental challenges. 

Are children worried about the environment?

The literature often stresses connection with nature as just an entirely positive experience, yet there is a whole other body of research on children’s alarm as we get dystopian news about the environment. It shows that when children who are really concerned about the environment sit all alone with the problem, it can impact measures of mental health, including levels of anxiety and worry.

We need to bring these literatures together, because it's the same child who both feels joy in nature at one moment and then the stress about, say, the wildfires in California, in the next moment. I think all of us who work with children in the environment need to be thinking about how we can help them hold it together in constructive ways without shutting down and falling into despair or apathy. 

Does it matter how much time a child spends in nature, or what kind of green space it is? 

I have never wanted to say, unless you have these experiences as a kid, you're not going to be a dedicated environmentalist. But certainly, the research indicates that the people who do turn out to have a commitment to caring for the environment typically had nature as a routine part of their childhood. That could mean it was right outside their home, it was the summer cabin or the family went out on summer camping trips.

The other critical thing is having people around you who indicated this experience was really valuable, who said, “Hey, look at how beautiful that is,” or “Look how fascinating that is.” 

A lot of my work has been thinking about, how do we make nature accessible for children even in dense cities, and even among low income families and families of color? We have a lot of research that shows what some people call a “tree line”: divisions between upper middle-class neighborhoods and working-class neighborhoods. One being green, the other one that's more asphalt. Access to nature is very much a social justice issue. Making it accessible everywhere to all children is very much part of my work. 

Are kids encountering bad environmental news more often these days? 

A few years ago, a good friend of mine in Boulder told me a story about tucking her third grader into bed at night, and the little girl looked up at her and said, “Mommy, will the world be all burned up before I grow up?” In this case, she suspected her child’s teacher might have been sharing news about environmental destruction. 

There is a saying among people who work with connecting young people to nature in elementary school: “No tragedies before fourth grade.” You're just presenting them with really distressing and scary material. They're too young for that. Kids can't do anything about the loss of the Amazon rainforest. But kids live in the world where they see TV, they hear grownups talk, and more and more this is impacting their own lives. So it's important that we help them deal with it. 

How can we help them deal with it? 

One of the things we need to do is give them opportunities to feel a sense of agency to shape the environment in positive ways. 

Maria Ojala, a Swedish researcher in this area, looked at the kids who are getting this information, believe it, and know that it's distressing, but could also at the same time acknowledge they are not alone in dealing with it. Kids who could feel that whatever they were doing, it could add up to making a difference because other people were doing it too, had what she called a form of social trust. These kids thought, “I'm not alone with my scary feelings, or with trying to make the world better.” Their mental health was buffered so they could really come see the facts, and yet they didn't have levels of anxiety and worry that were impacting their mental health. 

This sounds a lot like what we saw this past year with Greta Thunberg’s youth movement. Is it related? 

We’re finding that if families, teachers and friends give kids a safe space to share their environmental worries, then they're more likely to express hope—and a constructive type of hope. Greta was also shutting down because she was being bullied in school, and she didn't have a safe space there. But because Greta decided she was going to do something, and then other people rallied behind her, she found she wasn't alone. Her parents were so supportive for her. The research indicates that's really important for kids, to have people who hear them and support them. 

With COVID-19, what challenges and opportunities are there for connecting with nature?

It depends where we are. COVID-19 can result in more time with families going outside in nature with the kids, but also less. People who have never gone camping before are discovering the value of camping now, including families with their children. But in big cities like New York, there were so many people pouring into the parks this past summer, that some people couldn't go to the parks with their kids anymore.

Here, Boulder Valley School District is currently designing spaces for outdoor learning. So we are seeing more attention to how schools can use outdoor spaces, and that opens up opportunities for what we call nature-based learning. 

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.