Take a minute to think about your favorite book from childhood. Do you envision lots of furry animals? A wise old tree? Kids in the forest? With environmental issues so prominent in the American mindset, one would think that the natural environment would play a larger role now in children's books than it did several decades ago. But a new study has found a steady decline in the number of children's books that depict the natural environment.
For the study, a group of researchers led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist J. Allen Williams Jr. evaluated the images found in the American Library Association’s prestigious Caldecott Medal-winning children's books between 1938 through 2008. They looked at more than 8,000 images in almost 300 books, noting whether they showed natural settings, human-made environments, or something in between (like a playground.)
The results? Initially, natural and built environments were equally represented, but beginning in the 1960s, depictions of natural settings began a steady decline. By 2008, images of human-made environments showed up in books twice as often as those depicting nature scenes.
The study's authors attribute the decline to the increasing isolation of children from the natural world. "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," noted the authors.
But are these Caldecott Medal winners are a true representation of what are kids are actually reading on a daily basis?
Sadly, there were few books on the list that carried a nature theme, or even depicted the natural environment, although a few parents did list animal books as their kids' favorites. Even in our house, with bookshelves full of nature stories and eco-thrillers, my own kids named "My Little Pony" and "Harry Potter" books as their favorite reads. (I'm still trying to decide if Harry Potter's Forbidden Forest counts as the natural environment.)
But does this really mean that my kids are not connected with nature? That just doesn't make sense — my kids love hiking and playing outdoors and can't get enough of websites, magazines and movies that feature animals. It seems more likely to me that the most recent nature-themed books are so steeped in eco "messages" that they are no longer enjoyable for kids to read. "The Poky Little Puppy" didn't have a hidden eco-agenda. It just followed a slow-moving puppy on his adventures in the "wide, wide world."
So maybe kids aren't really disconnected from nature as much as they really just want to read better books featuring the natural environment that aren't constantly trying to teach them a lesson about recycling or climate change.
What do you think? Does your child's favorite book feature the natural environment?