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The "Nature" of Eco-Anxiety

Two children are exploring in tall grasses near a river.
Children exploring outdoors

I was in an interesting Zoom presentation about climate change solutions put on by Green Teacher, when a participant brought up a rule we should live by that went something like this:

“No bad news about the environment before the fourth grade. Our job with younger children is to teach them to love the natural world.”

I’d never heard that before, but immediately I agreed. The world is a scary enough place to navigate without the added anxiety of everything changing and in a bad way, a way younger children cannot control. Talk about eco-anxiety! So, how do we teach children to love the natural world?

That’s what I asked Vince Case, a colleague of mine who did his dissertation on outdoor learning. Vince doesn’t believe that teachers need to teach children how to love nature.

“Can we truly ever teach another person to love someone or something?”

He’s got a point there. Instead, Vince advocates that teachers and parents provide children with outdoor opportunities so they can make their own discoveries and connections within the natural world. That feeling of awe and wonder connects children to the world around them, making them more willing to conserve and protect. Sounds like good advice. And there are other reasons to get children outdoors too.

A person walks quietly in the forest during shinrin yoku.
Bathing in green forest light reduces stress.

Hopefully, you’ve already heard about some of the myriad of studies showing that getting children into “green spaces” helps them physically, psychologically, and socially. If this is news to you, then try googling “Health Benefits of spending time outdoors.” The National Health Institure sums it up this way - humans (who aren’t afraid of the outdoors) experience a positive impact on well-being, lower stress levels, improved cognitive development, reduced depression, and anxiety. In addition, children and adolescents who spend more time in greenspaces have fewer emotional and behavioral problems. The Japanese encourage spending peaceful time outdoors and even have a word for it, “shinrin yoku” or “forest bathing.” You can get time off work to do it. But don’t worry; you get to keep your clothes on.

A child contemplates the ocean waves.

Hey, wait. Isn’t this blog supposed to be about Cog’s Episode 9 on Oceans? Well, it is, because now we’re finding that blue spaces like oceans, rivers, and lakes induce similar benefits. As if we needed yet another reason for protecting our oceans and fresh water sources!

And here’s the thing, people who do not feel at home in the natural world can develop “biophobia,” an aversion to nature. According to an article in the November 13, 2023 Atlantic Monthly, people are spending more time indoors and it’s making them lonelier and more uncomfortable with the natural world. It’s easy to see how that might make it difficult to convince them to care about climate change.

So, let’s circle back to the rule for teaching about climate change. I would change it to this:

Am important piece of teaching about climate change is to provide opportunities for people of any age to get outdoors and connect with the natural world, so they want to protect the green and blue spaces that give them peace, spaces they love.

A child is splashing thorugh a puddle on a wintery day.

Note: If you want to start getting children outdoors, Vince says you can start with nearby easy-to-walk-to spaces. Look for ideas at your nearest Environmental Education Association. Or visit these websites.

· The North American Association of Environmental Education

Photo Credits

Child on beach: Kevin Krejci from Near the Pacific Ocean, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Shinrin Yoku: Katarzyna Sim, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Walking in puddle: Mount Rainier National Park from Ashford, WA, United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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