Children’s patterns of needs and desires are not stable but change as they grow up. One change that parents may see and feel upset about is children’s decreasing preference for natural environments as a place for rest, leisure, and socialization.
A review of many cross-cultural studies show that youth, both in urban and rural settings, prefer more developed and less natural places. In a very interesting research, Kaplan and Kaplan studied solo time in wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They learned that adults found the experience of being alone in wilderness far more positive than youth. Youth found it both lonely and boring and experienced “silence” as less positive time. In contrast, adults were more likely to report a positive and peaceful experience and a joy in exploring the “mysteries of nature” on their own.
These findings are not surprising as studies of youth preferable places consistently show two important factors: youth like to be where their friends are and where they can do things preferably exciting and adventurous. These factors are strongly rooted in biology and culture and demonstrate youth’s strong need for showing competence and being helpful to others. Hard to believe?! Not when we know that youth desire to claim and/or improve their status in peer groups. Their perception of what their peer say and think about them are important.
The key question how we can keep natural environment relatable and appealing to our children as they grow up. I suggest in our design of space, time, and structure of experiences in nature, we need to offer them many opportunities for making choices, showing independency, taking risk to show competence both in skills and strengths, and gaining respect from peers, us, and larger community. We need to respect and recognize youth’s needs to initiate the paths and set the rules … but more importantly as Kaplans suggest we need to “listen and observe them to see where they are at” … what is meaningful and satisfying to them and trust that with consistent positive experiences although they may feel less comfortable in natural settings now, they would reclaim their biological connections to nature as they grow up to be competent and confident.