Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Formula for Lifelong Environmental Stewardship -
Take 222 Hikes and Call Me in Forty Years

By Sandi Funke, Education Director

Pepperwood's Budding Biologists summer camp
 (photo by Sandi Funke)
Like many parents, I want my child to grow up and have a deep respect for this place we call home. Yet with the pressures of work, friends and family, it is sometimes hard to know what parenting technique is most effective at conveying my value of environmental stewardship. As a child, we did not hike or camp, yet I romped through the neighborhood playing army and as teen flitted in the forests of central Michigan “acting out” roles as fearies and townsfolk at the Michigan Renaissance Festival. Just how important were these play sessions? Was it those or the countless episodes of NOVA that led me to who I am today?

Is getting kids outdoors the answer to creating nature stewards?

In his breakthrough book Last Child in the Woods - Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (2005), Richard Louv links the time young people spend in nature with a myriad of developmental benefits. In the chapter entitled Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From? he points out, “Attachment to land is not only good for the child, it is good for the land.” He goes on to explain, “if we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

Louv based his book on research from a variety of sources. In chapter 14 of Influencing Conservation Action - What Research Says about Environmental Literacy, Behavior, and Conservation Results (2013), author Dr. Nicole Ardoin of Stanford University begs the question of whether connecting kids to nature has an impact on conservation over the long term. She explains:

“…there is evidence to suggest that kids’ nature experiences can affect behavior over
the long term. For example, a number of studies have explored ‘significant life experiences.’ This research examines the important influences in the lives of environmental professionals, looking for factors that might have encouraged their environmental commitment. This body of work has consistently revealed that time spent in natural settings – and in particular with a caring adult or mentor who encourages respect and appreciation for nature  often provides a critical formative influence in the development of environmental professionals’ lives.”

Pepperwood's Budding Biologists summer camp
 (photo by Sandi Funke)
Direct research investigating “significant life experiences” and their affiliation with environmentally responsible behavior investigates these assertions. Researchers Wells and Lekies (2006) interviewed 2,000 demographically representative American adults living in urban areas. They asked participants questions about their childhood nature experiences and their current attitudes and behaviors related to the environment. They found that childhood participation in nature such as hiking or playing in the woods has a positive relationship to environmental behaviors. 

Chalwa (1999) conducted interviews with 56 environmentalists both in Kentucky and Norway to determine the source of their environmental commitment. Upon interviewing these environmentalists, the leading explanation given for commitment was again experience of natural areas in childhood. Researchers Palmer, Suggate, Bajd, and Hart (1999) constructed autobiographical narratives with 1,200 environmentally active individuals in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. They found that again childhood time in nature was a very salient factor.

Students from Calistoga Elementary School participating in
Pepperwood's SCENIQ program (photo by Sandi Funke)
So what is a mom, dad, grandparent, aunt, or uncle to do that does not yet know how or where to hike with kids? Starting this fall, Pepperwood will be launching a new initiative: Family Fun al Fresco - Diversi√≥n familiar al aire libre. This program will give diverse families more access to Pepperwood. We will continue to offer family classes and overnights as well as new bilingual family hikes. In the meantime, we are very lucky in Sonoma County to have access to a myriad of Regional Parks and folks like Landpaths that partner with Pepperwood to link families with nature. So, if you want to raise the next great environmental writer, scientist, policy maker, or even avid composter get those kids outdoors and do it often!

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