As a writer and environmentalist, I take this subject to heart.
Growing up, my favourite stories were always the ones about adventure, wild creatures in jungles and forests, and explorations in nature. But many books today are set in urban environments. Take a look at the titles on your children’s book shelves. Are they reading classics like The Wind in the Willows? Or are they into more modern tales about characters like Bob the Builder?
According to a new study, depictions of nature have been gradually disappearing from award-winning illustrated children’s books over the past few decades, sparking concerns about a growing disassociation from the natural world. This is also referred to as nature deficit disorder. This is not a medical condition; instead it describes our lack of a relationship with the environment.
Nature deficit disorder is a term coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, which refers to this trend and the fact that children are spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioural problems. We don’t have to guess at what is keeping children separated from nature. The lure of the screen. Television. Video games. And a culture of fear. Parents favour “safe” regimented sports over imaginative play. Is this lack of outdoor playtime the reason our kids are depressed, distracted and overweight?
A team of researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln recently examined the top books honoured by the prestigious Caldecott Medal, judged by the American Library Association, between 2008 and 1938 when the award was created. The study reviewed close to 8,100 illustrations from 300 children’s books, in total. The researchers found a steady decline in images that showed a natural environment, like a forest or jungle, compared with images of built environments, like a school or house, and in-between environments, like a manicured lawn. The number of wild animals, compared with domesticated animals, was also found to have dropped. In the mid-1970s, depictions of urban settings rose dramatically, taking the place of natural environments, to the point where nature has all but disappeared, the researchers said.
Of course, some of this is not surprising since many of us now live in urban settings. And although children may be learning about the natural world through other media, they’re not being socialized, at least through illustrated books, to understand and appreciate nature and our place in it. This lack of contact may result in children caring less about the natural world and less about the many significant environmental problems we face.
Richard Louv says it best, “The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
How will nature make a come-back on your child’s book shelf?