“Deepening children’s interaction with nature addresses the issue of environmental generational amnesia. The solution we are putting forward is, in effect, ‘one small interaction with nature at a time’,” stated Thea Weiss, University of Washington

Note to Reader:

Thea Weiss is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, with an emphasis on human development. She conducts research in the Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems (HINTS) lab under the direction of Dr. Peter Kahn. Her work integrates knowledge of our species’ evolutionary past with a focus on human experience and performance in an increasingly technological present. In particular, she is interested in optimizing human psychological well-being using simulated nature in virtual and augmented reality.

The Importance of Children Interacting with Big Nature

“Our study addressed the issue of environmental generational amnesia – that is, each generation in its youth perceiving the degraded condition of the environment as the non-degraded (normal) condition. This means that across generations, the baseline for what counts as healthy nature shifts downward. A proposed solution is to broaden and deepen children’s interactions with nature, to engage them with ‘big nature’,” stated Thea Weiss, Doctoral Candidate (Psychology)/Researcher at University of Washington, in the summary of her research under the direction of Peter Kahn.

“One way to think of ‘big nature” is nature in its untamed and unmanaged condition. Some people are fearful of nature in this unmanaged state. Others are strengthened and nourished by it. But ‘big’ is also a relative concept. For a young child growing up in a city, a squirrel could be ‘big animal’, and water in an urban fountain could be experienced as ‘big water’. From the child’s perspective, both the squirrel and the water may be more wild than what they usually encounter.”

“This research is based on the understanding that both perspectives about ‘big nature’ have value for children in an urban environment. Small positive changes to domestic nature can make the experience of nature a little more wild. Such changes can also keep the larger vision of wild nature and wild human-nature interactions alive.”

“Close observations of preschool children, ages 3 to 5, in a forest preschool in Seattle revealed interaction patterns illustrating engagement with ‘big nature’. One example involves the experience of falling on ground and learning to do so safely. Falling on ground safely is not innate knowledge; it is constructed knowledge involving repeated experimentation of child with ground. In Nature Language terms, falling on ground is a child-nature interaction which helps the child develop environmental capabilities, values, knowledge, intimacies, and relationships.”

Nature Language is a term introduced by the researchers as a means of speaking about deep and meaningful patterns of human interaction with nature.”

“Ideas related to ‘big nature’ and ‘nature language’ can help mitigate the problem of environmental generational amnesia. Since lack of interaction with nature has partly caused the problem, deepening children’s interaction with nature is proposed as a way to help solve it. Children’s educational environments –and entire cities — can be designed with this goal in mind.”

To Learn More:

Read The Importance of Children Interacting with Big Nature by Peter Kahn and Thea Weiss, published in 2017.

Environmental Generational Amnesia

Peter Kahn, Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, equates the Shifting Baseline Syndrome phenomenon to Environmental Generational Amnesia. Peter Kahn calls our environmental generational amnesia “one of the central psychological problems of our lifetime,” because it obscures the magnitude of so many concrete problems.

“People take the natural environment they encounter during childhood as the norm against which they measure environmental degradation later in their life. Each generation takes that degraded condition as the non-degraded condition, as the normal experience,” explains Peter Kahn.

“Since the problem of environmental generation amnesia has its genesis in childhood, I suggest that childhood is a good place to start solving the problem.”

Peter Kahn is the author of “Technological Nature” and the founder of the Human Interactions with Nature and Technological Systems Laboratory in Seattle, Washington.

How do children reason about environmental problems? Are there universal features in children’s environmental conceptions and values? How important is it that children and young adults experience natural wonders? Finally, what happens to children’s environmental commitments and sensibilities when they grow up in environmentally degraded conditions? These are questions that are addressed by Peter Kahn in his research into environmental moral conceptions and values.

To Learn More:

Download a copy of Children’s Affiliations with Nature: Structure, Development, and the Problem of Environmental Generational Amnesia