Children and Nature: Why Connection Matters

Written by:  Ms. Alice Pilkey, Assistant Teacher (Redondo Beach)

How often is the soul of man—especially in childhood—deprived because he is not allowed to come in contact with nature?
                                   —Maria Montessori (qtd. in Johnson 39)

According to Montessori, direct experience of the natural world—that is, the world as it originally presents itself, before being crafted and reshaped by humans—is essential for the physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being of children. “The most important thing,” she states, “is to free the child, if possible, from the ties which keep him isolated in the artificial life of the city” (Montessori 1967, 67). Over time, children left free to use all their senses in natural environments develop, she feels, a spontaneous appreciation for the difference between the regular, or geometric, products of human industry, and the endlessly unique forms occurring independently of human intervention; and this dawning awareness takes on, within the child's life, qualities characteristic of a spiritual awakening or epiphany (Montessori 2003, 126, 197).
Today a growing number of writers, educators, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and activists argue, with increasing urgency, that children need nature: real, direct experience that is, as opposed to intellectual knowledge gleaned from adult sources, or exposure via the medium of a screen. “The more kids can do, see, feel, and experience for themselves,” educator and counselor Kim John Payne writes, “the more connected they will feel to the world, and the less overwhelmed” by this century's onslaught of information (Payne 80). This may be because our ancestors have lived in direct contact with nature for much longer than we have lived out of it: we may, in other words, be better adapted to our collective natural habitat—the great outdoors—than to the host of synthetic environments we have recently managed to create for ourselves, despite the convenience and security these latter afford us. Direct experience of nature may be uniquely qualified to meet the developmental needs of children because, quite simply, this is what children have always had.

An advocate for the rights of children—and more recently of humans generally—to continue experiencing nature directly and viscerally, as they have always done, writer Richard Louv has amassed quite a body of evidence supporting the hypothesis that nature is good for people. Citing a University of Illinois study of “the negative impact of de-natured life on human health and well-being,” he states: “Humans living in landscapes that lack trees or other natural features undergo patterns of social, psychological, and physical breakdown that are strikingly similar to those observed in animals that have been deprived of their natural habitat” (Louv 2011, 63). He coins the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses,” claiming that the above “can be detected in individuals, families, and communities” (Louv 2006, 34). Louv attributes a growing disconnect between children and the natural world to dwindling access to undeveloped spaces, an inevitable consequence of urban/suburban sprawl; to what he calls “the criminalization of natural play” resulting from concerns about litigation and property value, and frequently codified through community—for example, HOA—covenants (28, 31); and to parental fear “of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger—and of nature itself” (123). Given the benefits, however, of direct experience in nature, addressing these circumstances and concerns is a worthwhile, if challenging, endeavor for adults who care about children.

Amelioration of attentional difficulties stands at the forefront of the list of potential benefits. According to Payne, “nature is a warm sensory bath that can counterbalance the cold overwhelm of too much activity, information, or stuff,” calming and focusing children (Payne 46). Since the 1970s, environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have been studying nature's impact on human thinking and behavior and developed a theory of “directed-attention fatigue” to describe what happens, in artificial environments, when people are forced to direct their attention on too little for too long. Results include diminished impulse control, increased distractibility, impatience, irritability, and problems considering long-term goals; fortunately, time spent in the natural world seems to relieve this (Louv 2011, 27-8). The recent upsurge of ADHD diagnoses might even, according to Louv, be related to movement away from agrarian lifestyles, as energetic children find fewer acceptable outlets for physical activity than their parents and grandparents did, on labor- and nature-intensive farms (Louv 2006, 101). “The real disorder,” Louv suggests, might rest “less in the child than . . . in the imposed, artificial environment”; and “the society that has disengaged the child from nature” might—rather than the child him or herself—be rightly understood as disordered (108).

Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium commonly found in soil, has been observed to increase serotonin production in mice, as well as help them navigate mazes more efficiently (Louv 2011, 30-1). Extrapolated to human populations, this could mean that children who inhale or ingest dirt while playing outside experience elevated moods, as a result of increased feel-good brain chemistry, and also learn more easily. But bacteria aside: time in nature does seem to positively support cognition, if only because all senses are engaged. Louv calls the utilization of all senses simultaneously “the optimum state of learning” (25). Ecologist and philosopher David Abram, in fact, traces the origins of reading ability to preliterate, and preagricultural, hunting activity. We read, he suggests, “with organs honed over millennia by our tribal ancestors” who followed “the tracks of deer, moose, and bear printed on the soil of the forest floor” just as we follow printed words across the page today (Abram 95-6). If his hypothesis is true—if, in fact, we did begin reading out-of-doors—then it makes intuitive sense to requisition this same environment today to continue supporting developing readers.

Louv defines creative genius as “the ability to see patterns in the universe, to detect hidden links between what is and what could be” (Louv 2011, 13). And, play in the natural world may help children to find these underlying connections more readily. The “loose parts” theory—first proposed by architect Simon Nicholson—contends that the more loose parts a toy or environment offers an individual, the more creativity it will inspire (Louv 2006, 86; 2011, 34). With an infinite number of loose but inherently related parts available at any given time—blades of grass, stones, fallen leaves, etc.—the natural world is ideally qualified to encourage the sensitivity to relationships, or to pattern, at the heart of creativity (2011, 34). Moreover—unlike puppets, dolls, toy trucks, or other objects created by adults for children to play with—the loose parts found in the natural world have no embedded cultural identities or meanings. What children can or cannot do with them is not predetermined by their shapes. For this reason, Payne describes nature as “a vibrant but neutral canvas onto which a child can pour their creativity” (Payne 46). Remembering his own process of self-education out-of-doors in rural Australia, Montessori educator Geoffrey Bishop states that nature “has everything a child could possibly want, and . . . will inspire imagination” (Bishop 31).

As an adult committed to the well-being of children, Bishop ranks “unstructured and unrestricted outdoor and nature play” alongside “family, a stable home, adult mentors, and a strong system of education” (Bishop 26). It is, in other words, a crucial element of a healthy childhood, and something which previous generations, including our own, simply took for granted (Louv 2006, 10). Today, however, it is in danger of being replaced by time spent indoors, as well as by activities—such as scouting and sporting events—organized primarily by adults. Many parents now view channeling their children into such adult-directed activities as a way of keeping them both productive and safe; but unfortunately, much is lost when structured games, practices, and performances become all a child has time to experience. According to Payne, “a childhood full of opportunities and time for exploring nature is a rich childhood indeed” (Payne 82). By choosing to protect their children's freedom, parents are giving them a rare gift since, according to Louv, “it takes time—loose, unstructured dreamtime—to experience nature in a meaningful way” (Louv 2005, 117).

In addition to time, children also need access to natural, or wild, spaces conducive to unstructured play. Although these locations are increasingly hard to find, it is important to bear in mind that humble places may serve children just as well as, if not better than, spectacular destinations. According to Louv, “expeditions to the mountains or national parks often pale, in a child's eyes, in comparison with the mysteries of the ravine at the end of the cul de sac” (170). This is because children gain more by knowing a place well—by bonding with it through repeated explorations, and seasonal changes—than by passing through once or twice. Ideally, every child should have the opportunity to find his or her own special place out-of-doors, a place that feels right for playing, reading, or simply spending time alone (Payne 82). This may be a fort, treehouse, or bed of pine needles or moss; or, patch of weeds at the end of a driveway. Quality of location—as most adults understand it—is in this sense less valuable to a child than the chance to, over time, make the place the child's own.

Montessori planned agricultural activities for the children in her first schools, offering them both gardens to tend, and opportunities to practice animal husbandry. Any directed practical activity which involves interaction with other species—be they of the plant or animal kingdoms—facilitates the connection with the natural world which children need, and modeling these activities for children is another way of giving them the gift of nature on an everyday basis. This can be as simple as working in the kitchen garden while they look on, or helping them meet the needs of pet lizards in a household terrarium. Not much is needed: according to Montessori, “it will always be possible to find a few square yards of land that may be cultivated, or a little place where pigeons can make their nest . . . Even a pot of flowers at the window can, if necessary, fulfill the purpose” (Montessori 2003, 126). Over time, children who engage in these activities will develop foresight, as they anticipate the needs of the creatures they are tending; as well as patience and confident expectation—or, hope—as they await the opportunity to reap (123, 125).

Evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, of Harvard, defines biophilia as our “innately emotional affiliation to . . . other living organisms”: something which, from a scientific perspective, we do not yet fully understand (qtd. in Louv 2011, 53). And yet, Montessori describes this as an inevitable component of healthy human development: “When individuals develop normally,” she states, “they plainly feel a love for all living creatures” (qtd. in Johnson 40). Through contact, children “develop this feeling of trust and confidence in living creatures, which is . . . a form of love and of union with the universe” (Montessori 2003, 125). Extended to land, or to place—in other words, to the environment generally—this bond of love might provide our children with the motivation they need to begin solving the environmental crises which, as a generation, they will certainly face.

Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning.
                         —Maria Montessori (1967, 68-9)


Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Bishop, Geoffrey. “Learning through Nature: A Real-Life Testimonial.” Montessori Life Vol. 25, No. 3: Fall 2013.

Johnson, Kelly. “Montessori and Nature Study: Preserving Wonder Through School Gardens.” Montessori Life Vol. 25, No. 3: Fall 2013.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006.

-------. The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011.

Montessori, Maria. The Discovery of the Child. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 1967.

-------. The Montessori Method. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003.

Payne, Kim John, with Lisa M. Ross. Simplicity Parenting. New York: Ballantine, 2010.