Expert Voices

Are Kids Afraid of Nature? (Op-Ed)

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Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). This Op-Ed is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Valerie Belt, a Los Angeles teacher, constantly sends me emails dealing with nonhuman animals (animals) and human-animal relationships (anthrozoology). If a day passes without my receiving something from Valerie I fear something has happened to her! 

Last week, Valerie alerted me to a most disturbing essay by Judy Molland called "Why Are Kids Afraid Of Nature?" In her essay, Molland reveals how rangers at National Wildlife refuges are very concerned that, "young visitors are often scared of nature, whether it's creepy crawlies, spiders, bats, snakes, or sometimes even ladybugs and fish." They, like many others, are concerned that in both children and adults a fear of nature is on the rise. Molland also noted that& a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 8-18 year-olds devote an average of more than seven and a half hours each day (more than 50 hours each week) to using entertainment media. And, because they also multitask, "they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into each day." 

That's bad news — and it should be alarming to anyone who really cares about not only how these youngsters become alienated from nature, but also about their physical and mental health.

I look at time spent multitasking with entertainment as part of the process of "unwilding." Most people find it difficult to live a rich and meaningful life that involves being out in nature — and appreciating the magnificence of our one and only planet — because they are constantly in the process of being unwilded. People are pulled away from nature and other animals because they're simply too busy trying to survive, or too busy trying to make ends meet. And unwilding begins early in life — too many youngsters aren't allowed to "go out and get dirty" or just have fun doing nothing but enjoying themselves outside. [The Benefits of Digging in the Dirt (Op-Ed)]

Overcoming the unwilding that begins early in life

In my forthcoming book "Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence," I argue that far too many kids have become unwilded and that it's essential that they "rewild" as early as possible so that they come to appreciate nature and other animals, and so they don't get into bad habits of sitting on their butts staring at computer screens and other electronic devices. 

We live in a world in which unwilding is the norm rather than the exception. The need to rewild and reconnect centers on results from the extensive isolation and fragmentation in nature, the disconnect between people and the nature surrounding us, and the chaos within ourselves. 

Many — perhaps most — humans are also internally isolated and fragmented in their relationships with nonhuman animals, so much so that people are alienated from those animals. We don't connect with other animals, including other humans, because we can't or don't empathize with them . The same effect holds true for our lack of connection with various landscapes: We don't understand they're alive, vibrant and dynamic. 

If we didn't unwild we wouldn't have to rewild. Rewilding our hearts calls for a global paradigm shift — a social revolution — in how people interact with other animals and with other humans. It lays out the details for helping us extricate ourselves from our ecocidal ways and contributing to a more peaceful world for all beings in these trying times of over-population, over-consumption and habitat encroachment. 

As a social movement, rewilding needs to be proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful and passionate — which I call the eight Ps of rewilding. Let's make personal this all the rage. Ecocide is suicide — but there really is hope if we change our ways. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations who will inherit the world long after we're gone.

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Get outside

The conclusion to Molland's essay is right on the mark: "Whatever it takes, let’s get rid of the fear. The dangers of staying home, sitting all day staring at a screen while munching on corn chips and drinking soda, are far greater than getting off that couch and stepping outside!" 

I'm reminded of the slogan of Play Wales, "Better a broken bone than a broken spirit." Surely conservation psychologists and conservation social workers can help society along in learning how to overcome unwilding. Perhaps the process can begin with interactions with the companion animals with whom so many people share their homes, or with animals in backyards or local parks. 

We also need to rewild education, to allow youngsters to get out into nature and to get down and dirty. This could be simple walks outside. I often see classes walking on bike paths near my home near Boulder, Colo., looking at the different animals who live there and also the trees, shrubs and flowers. I've seen a teacher explaining to students that the trees, shrubs, and flowers are homes to many animals, as well as sources of food, and that harming the flora also harmed the animals — and from conversations with friends as far away as Va., I know that such class outings are not unique. 

Little would be lost and much would be gained by getting kids outdoors and away from computer screens and entertainment media. Indeed, not only would they themselves benefit, but so will their own kids when the world passes to them. 

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "The Emotional Lives of Crayfish." This article was primarily adapted from the post "Who's Afraid of 'Big Bad Nature?' Far Too Many Kids" inPsychology Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.