A young girl writes on a clipboard in the botanical garden.
A young visitor at the New York Botanical Garden's Everett Children’s Adventure Garden. Photo courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

There’s a few things kids can do to influence how adults view biodiversity, according to a new study.

If you want city kids to care about the environment, have them collect it. According to a new report from researchers at Tokyo Metropolitan University, childhood experience with nature is the most important factor in predicting whether children will grow up to appreciate it. And the most impactful kind of childhood experience is active engagement with plants and animals.

Researchers Tetsuro Hosaka, Koun Sugimoto, and Shinya Numata surveyed 1,030 adult residents in Tokyo and its neighboring prefectures. The survey recorded the frequency of respondents’ participation in different nature-related activities before age 12, and then asked about their feelings and familiarity towards different animals as well as their willingness to live near such animals. The results showed that having experiences with nature in childhood influenced how much people liked and were inclined to coexist with animals. The survey does not, however, probe what concrete actions these individuals would be willing to take to protect nature and animals.

It may seem only natural that kids who grow up experiencing the environment have more of an interest in it when they get older. But the report also found that certain kinds of play are more useful than others when it comes to helping children appreciate biodiversity. Plant and insect collecting both had a greater effect on participants’ likeability towards animals than more unstructured activities such as tree climbing or swimming in rivers. “Since collecting requires knowledge and skills for searching, collecting, handling and identifying items,” the report states, “it would effectively promote children’s understanding and affective attitudes towards living organisms in the natural world.”

That can be a tough ask, especially since most national parks forbid visitors from taking or altering the natural flora and fauna of a site. But there are ways to (legally) get around such barriers. Lila Higgins, the Citizen Science Manager at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, recalls leading groups to photograph insects and plants, a digital update to traditional insect and plant collecting that a national park would not object to. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has a Discovery Garden with dedicated space for visitors to smell and (gently) touch. Children have noted on the garden’s surveys that after their experiences there they have become more comfortable in nature and excited to explore it on their own. Inside the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden is designed specifically to accommodate interactive experiences. “It just takes a bit of problem solving. If we know kids are going to be exploring here, let’s put a plant that’s very touchable but also very sturdy,” says Patricia Hulse, the director of the children’s garden. “You can have a beautiful space but one that’s safe and fun for kids to explore.”

More than 80 percent of the U.S. population now lives in cities, where environmentalists will have to be open-minded about how kids get direct interaction with nature.  

“If you don’t know what’s out there, there’s no way you would make that part of your life,” says Katie George, chair of NYC Inspiring Connections Outdoors (NYCICO), a grassroots offshoot of the Sierra Club. NYCICO partners with schools and social service agencies to expose city kids to nature through outdoor excursions like camping trips. “I think it’s an imperative to have exposure to nature in order for kids to really feel a personal draw towards making a difference and conserving natural spaces,” says George, “especially urban dwellers because they make up such a large percentage of the population.”

Nature doesn’t just have to mean trips to Yosemite or Yellowstone. Lila Higgins is a strong proponent of letting city kids play in whatever nature is available to them. She recounts how one of her colleagues grew up in a city and managed to develop an interest in the environment by going into alleyways and turning over leaves to examine spiders and snails. On a recent Wednesday night in the New York Botanical Garden, 15 teenagers used iPads to collect sonar data from nearby bat populations—they plan to use the data to develop activities about the importance of bats in a city’s ecosystem and the impact they have on insect populations.  

“If you have a real, visceral connection to the living things in your community, you can then extrapolate to other habitats around the world,” says Patricia Hulse. “I think sometimes educators get ahead of themselves by saying ‘Oh we have to teach them about the rainforest to save the rainforest!’ But just connect them to the habitat in their own community, and they can see, ‘Oh, I have insects in my own park, and the insects in the rainforest are different but also the same.’”

Sonal Bhatt, the Vice President of Education at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, echoes the importance of using whatever nature a city has available as a learning opportunity. “Your neighborhood has a lot of nature,” Bhatt says. “Even street beds. We have kids really knowledgeable about weeds, and once you know that you can decode the nature of an urban setting.” A colleague of Bhatt’s refers to the idea of “parting the green curtain,” making the outside world seem less mysterious by encouraging kids to study the plants and insects in street tree beds and get involved with community gardens. “Otherwise,” says Bhatt, “street tree beds are just urban and dirty, and a place where dogs poop.”

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