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Special Places for Young Children

Number 15 - December 1997

R. Wilson

Call for More Research

The discussion in this article is not meant to suggest that sufficient research has already been done on how children come to know and care about the natural world. On the contrary, more research is definitely warranted. This need for research has been addressed repeatedly in the literature (Chawla, 1988; Simmons, 1994).

Chawla (1988), for one, calls for more concentrated research on childrens' experience of nature and the development of pro-environmental behaviours. To date, neither society nor the field of developmental psychology have made this a priority. In fact, as Chawla (1988) indicates, a blindness to nature as a source of more-than-material necessities is the norm. This blindness, she notes, is "reflected in developmental psychology's lack of a vocabulary, theoretical framework, or research agenda to deal with childrens' experience of nature" (p. 19) . Chawla wisely proposes a two-pronged response: (a) more research into how children learn to care about nature; and (b) the creation of communities which give them something to care about. Nonformal environmental education programmes and settings can play an important role in each of these areas. Before providing a few suggestions as to how this might be done, a brief overview of some of the current research relating to significant life experiences and ecophobia will be presented.

Current Research Findings

Significant life experiences and related concerns

Significant life experiences have been studied in relation to the development of environmental concern. Such studies have been conducted primarily through surveys of individuals engaged in environmentally-related professions (i.e. environmental educators, interpreters, etc.). A number of cross-cultural studies indicate that positive experiences in the out-of-doors during childhood represent the single most important factor in developing a personal concern for the environment (Palmer, 1993; Tanner, 1980). Other research indicates that without positive experiences in the out of-doors, children tend to develop fears and discomforts which interfere with learning to know and care about the world of nature (Bixler, Carlisle, Hammitt, & Floyd, 1994; Hart, 1979; Kaplan, 1976, Simmons, 1994; Wilson, 1994).

One study, conducted by Wilson (1994), involved semi-structured interviews with a group of thirty three preschool children (ages three through five). Questions asked during the one-on-one interviews focused on childrens' understandings, attitudes, and feelings regarding various aspects of the natural environment. Childrens' responses were then analysed in relation to the following six categories: fear, dislike, appreciation, caring, enjoyment and violence. Results included more expressions of fear, dislike and violence than of appreciation, caring and enjoyment. Rain, for example, was referred to as something the children did not like and that could make them sick. Wild flowers were viewed as dangerous because they attract bees, which might sting you. The thought of being in a boat on a small lake was also frightening to many of the children. They were afraid the boat would tip over and they'd get eaten by sharks and alligators. A number of children expressed fear and/or indicated that they'd perform violent acts if they were close to such creatures as butterflies and baby birds Their responses included "Kill it," "Grab him and rip him apart," "Step on it," "Smash it," "Cut the birds' mouths off," and "Kick them." Misunderstandings were also common findings in relation to the childrens' responses. For example, only 9 of the 33 children indicated that finding wildlife in their backyard was a possibility.

Misunderstandings and expressions of fear were also noted in a study by Simmons (1994). For this study, interviews were conducted with eight nine-year-old children from a large urban area. Some of these children expressed fear of big trees and other vegetation (e.g. "Branches could fall off," "A tree might fall down," "Trees could get you scared," and "There might be itchy weeds"). The children also expressed fear of animals and bodies of water (e.g. "A bird could swoop down and get you," "Fish are poisonous and may bite you," "You might fall in the water and drown," "You could get hurt because there are too many rocks"). As these studies indicate, unfounded fears and misconceptions about nature tend to develop early in life. This result is not surprising, considering that most young children have very little actual contact with living things (Cohen & Horm-Wingerd, 1993) and they tend to be "more familiar with wild places through stories about witches and wild beasts than through direct experience" (Chawla, 1988, p. 15).

Today, many places where young children live, play and go to school are almost devoid of vegetation and other opportunities for direct contact with nature. Playgrounds, for example, tend to be dominated by prefabricated metal and plastic equipment. Children growing up in such settings may never have the opportunity of having the kind of significant life experiences that have motivated many environmentalists to devote their lives to protecting the natural environment. An additional concern for environmental education is that once unfounded fears and misconceptions about nature develop, environmental education programmes take on the role of being corrective or remedial rather than formative; and are thus less effective in accomplishing its goals (Bixler, et al 1994)

Frequent positive place experiences in natural areas, on the other hand, can foster attraction and respect for wildlife. These, in turn, can prove crucial to preventing or minimising fearful responses to natural elements (Chawla, 1988; Kellert, 1985).

Yet, as already indicated, opportunities for experiencing the natural world are decreasing at an alarming rate. Factors in both the physical and social environments of today's world seldom allow children the opportunity to freely explore and manipulate natural elements. This deprivation can lead to the development of ecophobia (Sobel, 1996) and prejudice against nature (Cohen, 1984).


Indications of ecophobia (i.e. the fear of ecological problems and the natural world) were reflected in the studies previously mentioned (i.e.Simmons, 1994; Wilson, 1994). Ecophobia, for some children, extends to the fear of being outside (Sobel, 1996). To combat the malaise of this fear and other manifestations of ecophobia, Sobel (1996) suggests fostering ecophilia, that is "supporting childrens' biological tendency to bond with the natural world" (p. 6). Providing frequent opportunities for children to become immersed in special outdoor places is one way to support this critical bond and prevent or minimise unfounded fears of and prejudices against nature.

Creating Special Places

Special places for young children are defined in this context as safe and aesthetically pleasing natural environments where they are free to manipulate and explore various aspects of the natural world. Places that are especially appealing to children give them the opportunity to arrange and re-arrange different aspects of the environment according to their own design. Studies have indicated that the extent to which a place is special for children depends, in large part, on the extent to which children are actively involved in making it their own (van Andel, 1990). Thus, rather than developing special places for young children, we should be developing them with the children. We should provide places where they can create, change, and personalise the environment. In addition to reflecting childrens'  inner need to influence their environment (Moore, 1989), this practice also honours childrens' way of coming to know and love the world of nature (Wilson, 1997).

Positive place experiences provide opportunities for children to explore, to manipulate, and to be involved with the natural environment. If the environment is limited in opportunities for exploration and involvement, the child's potential for learning in that environment is also limited. Schools, homes, and neighborhoods should provide natural habitats that nourish childrens' awareness and actively support their learning. Such learning occurs, not only in the cognitive domain, but in the areas of self esteem, emotional development, and aesthetic appreciation as well (Iozzi, 1989). An additional benefit for environmental education, is that positive place experiences also foster a sense of caring about the natural world (Nabhan & Trimble, 1994).

Additional Suggestions

In addition to creating special places for young children, some additional suggestions on how to help children learn to know and care about the natural world are as follows:

  • Introduce children to the typical natural elements of their own environment (e.g. native plants and animals, local waterways, etc.).
  • Avoid emphasising the names or labels of all elements and ecosystems. Focus, instead, on characteristics (e.g. how does it look? how does it feel? how does it move? etc.).
  • Encourage children to share their experiences of place through map making, drawing, expressive movement, creative writing, etc.
  • Find ways to certify special places. To certify is to spotlight a particular place and present it to the public. Such presentations might be by way of videotapes, photographs, paintings, drawings, articles in the local newspaper, etc. It is generally understood that the arts can be especially powerful in certifying special places and, in the process, amplifying a sense of place (Olwig, 1991; Pruneau, in press). Certification tells children (and the public) that a particular place is special or important. Through certification, a place becomes legitimate or more real (Steele, 1981).


While more research needs to be done on the origins of peoples' attraction to nature (Chawla. 1988), it seems clear that special places can contribute significantly to childrens' understanding of the world around them and their relationship to it. Such experiences tend to foster a sense of wonder and enhance childrens' understanding and appreciation of the natural environment. Such experiences also contribute to a sense of caring about the natural environment which, as research indicates, is an essential prerequisite to environmental action.


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