Nature Is Disappearing from Children's Books, Study Finds

Images of natural environments, such as jungles, are declining in some children's books, a study finds.
Images of natural environments, such as jungles, are declining in some children's books, a study finds. (Image credit: Couperfield | shutterstock)

Natural environments, such as forests and jungles, appear to be losing their place in children's books, according to an analysis of nearly 8,100 images from 296 award-winning kids' books.

Researchers divided the images in the books published between 1938 and 2008 into three categories: depictions of the natural environment; those of the built environment, say, inside a house, or those showing a middle ground, such as a mowed lawn. They also noted whether or not any animals appeared, and if so, how they were depicted.

From the late 1930s until the 1960s, built and natural environments were depicted almost equally, then images of cities, towns and indoors started to increase in the mid-1970s, while the natural environment showed up less and less frequently, they found. Images of wild animals also declined.

The books examined were either Caldecott Medal winners or honorees. Judged by the American Library Association, the Caldecott awards honor the best illustrations in children's booksin a year.

"I am concerned that this lack of contact may result in caring less about the natural world, less empathy for what is happening to other species and less understanding of many significant environmental problems," J. Allen Williams Jr., lead researcher and University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor emeritus, said in a press release.

Williams and colleagues note that over the past 70 years, more people have lived in urban environments, so it's no surprise these images would be prominent. However, the steady, significant increase they saw in the prominence of built environments led them to conclude: "Natural environments have all but disappeared."

"These findings suggest that today's generation of children are not being socialized, at least through this source, toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it," Williams and colleagues wrote in a study appearing in the February issue of the journal Sociological Inquiry.

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Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.