How to get a child to love a forest?

Childhood experiences in nature are on the wane. Cheryl Charles, Assistant Deputy Chair of IUCN CEC, discusses what this means for forests.

Cheryl Charles, CEC Member

Reprinted from arborvitae 42: Communicating Forest Values

There is a disturbing worldwide trend that may impact the future of forests. The trend is what author Richard Louv named “nature-deficit disorder” in his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods. Naturedeficit disorder is not a medical diagnosis. It is, however, a compelling description of a social change that is affecting children in both the developed and developing worlds. For many children, childhood is now dominated by time indoors.

Worldwide, the most common activity for children when not in school is watching television.1 Most children today don’t have the kind of childhood that many who have chosen forestry or other conservation and natural resource-related professions had as children – being told or encouraged to “go outside and play but get home before dark.”

My grandfather was a forester. Some of my earliest defining childhood experiences were spent on horseback with him. He was also a gifted communicator, using a combination of story and direct experience to seed in me the lifelong commitment to do what I can for children’s health and well-being, and the health of the Earth itself.

Why is this trend of children’s lack of direct experiences in nature important to foresters? Researcher Dr. Louise Chawla is among those whose work indicates that, nearly to a person, it is childhood experiences in nature that are the most significant contributors to growing up as adults with a deep commitment to the environment.

For young children, this commitment is nourished by playing in wild and semi-wild places outdoors: turning over a rock and feeling connected to all of life; climbing a tree and feeling a surge of confidence and exhilaration, peace and perspective; and having an adult share a place so special that the child feels valued and develops a lifelong connection to the power and beauty of the natural world.

Foresters, and those concerned about who will be foresters in the coming generations, should thoughtfully consider these changes in childhood and the potential implications for the profession and, by extension, for the health of forests in the future. We need to create nature-based experiences for children, youth and young adults and we need to advocate for policies that support the provision of nature-based experiences for young people. If your organization is not yet providing such opportunities, revisit your mission to make this a priority. Most of all, don’t assume that children today are playing outdoors and developing a deep connection to the natural world that will lead them to choose a career in forestry.

In the face of these changes and challenges, I urge you to make it a priority to take a child outside in nature – for the child’s healthy development and to plant the seeds for a career and a lifestyle that cares for and respects the Earth.

1 Singer, D.G. et al., 2009. Children’s Pastimes and Play in Sixteen Nations: Is Free-Play Declining? American
Journal of Play, Winter 2009, pp. 283-312.

Contact: Cheryl Charles,

Cheryl is co-founder, President and CEO of the Children & Nature Network, and also serves as Assistant Deputy Chair of IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication. For resources, including summaries of more than 100 studies of relevant research, visit


Work area: 
Climate Change
West and Central Africa
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