Friday, April 23, 2010

Thoughts Toward a Developmental Model of Masculine Identity, Part Five - Environment and Nature in Development

[Part one looked at some racial identity models as a foundation for how to construct a gender identity model, part two looked at the existing literature of male development (and the lack of anything comprehensive), and part three looked at how attachment styles might impact masculine identity. Most recently, part four looked at horizontal and vertical dimensions of individualism and collectivism.]


I've recently been watching and listening to Richard Louv (founder of the Children and Nature Network), whose book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder has been getting renewed attention. His basic premise is that children need to be in nature, especially as an element of unstructured play, to be happy and develop properly.

It's important to understand that our history has been spent out of doors - it's only in the last 20-40 years (television, computers, video games) that children spend more time indoors than out of doors (and doctors will tell you they see fewer broken bones and more repetitive use injuries). Our evolutionary history was spend out of doors, in nature:
I'll plead guilty to romanticising certain parts of my childhood, that tree house was pretty neat. But, when you think about it, for all of human history and prehistory, children went outside and either played or worked in nature for all of their developing years. That has been changing radically just within the last three decades. You can make the case that industrial revolutions certainly had an effect and the invention of agriculture certainly had an effect and this began a long time ago, but for the last three decades that pace of change has been much faster. So I don't think it's an exercise in nostalgia when you think that 99% or more of our history and prehistory as a species has been spent outside, particularly children, and that's how they learn. (Richard Louv, All in the Mind interview)
That sums up the crux of the issue. So let's expand on these ideas.

The following is a quote Natasha Mitchell used to open her recent All in the Mind show featuring Louv (as well as former preschool teacher Deb Moore, who recently completed a Masters in Education focusing on "the secret business of children's secret places"):
If when we were young we tramped through forests of Nebraska cottonwoods or raised pigeons on a rooftop in Queens or fished for Ozark bluegills or felt the swell of a wave that travelled a thousand miles before lifting our boat, then we were bound to the natural world and remain so today. Nature still informs our years, lifts us, carries us.

For children, nature comes in many forms. A newborn calf; a pet that lives and dies; a worn path through the woods; a fort nested in stinging nettles; a damp, mysterious edge of a vacant lot. Whatever shape nature takes, it offers each child an older, larger world separate from parents. Unlike television, nature does not steal time, it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighbourhood. It serves as a blank slate upon which a child draws and reinterprets the culture's fantasies.

Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion. Nature can frighten a child, too, and this fright serves a purpose. In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.

These are some of the utilitarian values of nature, but at a deeper level nature gives itself to children for its own sake, not as a reflection of a culture. At this level, inexplicable nature provokes humility.

I agree that this is an issue, and I think it is an issue for boys even more than it is for girls. So let's define what exactly Louv means by Nature Deficit Disorder (via Wikipedia):

Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, refers to the alleged trend[1] that children are spending less time outdoors,[2] resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems.[3] Louv claims that causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of the screen.[4] Recent research has drawn a further contrast between the declining number of National Park visits in the United States and increasing consumption of electronic media by children.[5]

Richard Louv spent 10 years traveling around the USA reporting and speaking to parents and children, in both rural and urban areas, about their experiences in nature. He argues that sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally "scared children straight out of the woods and fields," while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favors "safe" regimented sports over imaginative play.

In recognizing these trends, some people[6] argue that humans have an instinctive liking for nature; the biophilia hypothesis, and take steps to spend more time outdoors, for example in outdoor education, or by sending young children to forest kindergartens or Forest schools. It is perhaps a coincidence that Slow parenting advocates sending children into natural environments rather than keeping them indoors, as part of a hands-off style of parenting.[7] [Citations at the bottom]

Louv suggests that this void in nature-time for children leads to a variety of problems, not least of which is ADHD. But even the slighted exposure to nature can effect change in symptoms.
Richard Louv: Frances Kuo and others at the University of Illinois have done work on attention deficit disorder and found that just a little bit of time in nature, a walk through trees, a view from their room of nature rather than a man-made environment will reduce the symptoms of attention deficit disorder. And there's much more going on in terms of the research, finally.

Natasha Mitchell: I guess to push the point home, at one point you said that the woods of your childhood were the Ritalin of your childhood.

Richard Louv: Yes, the woods were my Ritalin. And that's true. I'm sure that I would have been placed on some kind of stimulants like Ritalin or something else as a child. I was the kid that sat in the back of the room and daydreamed watching the trees move, and I was the one that was too active in class and had to move around a lot, and I was also the kid that went down and found snakes underneath the hedge at the school and really came alive when I was outdoors in nature.

I can tell you that over the last few years, moving now internationally, I cannot tell you how many parents and teachers have come up to me and said that Johnny and Judy are different kids when you get them into nature. And oftentimes the teachers will say the troublemakers in class become the leaders in a natural setting, and I've heard that over and over. That's anecdotal, but the research would certainly indicate that that's based on a reality that's out there.

I'm not against pharmaceuticals, I'm not a radical on Ritalin, some kids need medication. But in the US, in some schools 40% of the boys are on Ritalin. What are we thinking? What are we doing? Surely that may have least some of those instances may have something to do with the fact that we took nature away from them in the first place. (All in the Mind)

Considering that we see four times as many diagnoses of boys vs. girls for ADHD (although, in fairness, some suggest that as many as 75% of cases in girls go undiagnosed), Louv's perspective adds a crucial element to our understanding of what can result from an isolation from nature.

However, even if the numbers are skewed, boys are more likely to stand out in class than girls because of differences in how the "hyperactivity" manifests. Even when comparing equal numbers of boys and girls, boys are more likely to have the hyperactivity variation of ADHD, with more disruptive behaviors, greater inattention, more externalizing problems, and higher impulsivity. Girls are generally more inattentive and suffer lower cognitive function in their expression of ADHD (Gershon, 2002).

Again, supporting what Louv says, Psychology Today (March/April 2004) reported that children with ADHD who spend regular time engaged in outdoor activities such as walking in the park, hiking, or in other ways being outside, display fewer symptoms generally associated with ADHD - the article cites the same author Louv mentions above.
Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances Kuo, researchers at the Human Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have found that spending time in ordinary "green" settings—such as parks, farms or grassy backyards—reduces symptoms of ADHD when compared to time spent at indoor playgrounds and man-made recreation areas of concrete and asphalt. The findings were consistent regardless of the child's age, gender, family income, geographic region or severity of diagnosis. (Lawson, para. 2)
The link to improved attention is seen with simple physical activity, as well:
Attention, an aspect of cognitive functioning that involves inhibition and impulse control, is highly valued by parents because of its ability to enhance learning. The emergence of this aspect of cognition in young children, for example, permits group learning—listening quietly with others to the reading of a story or taking turns with others in a shared activity. In a recent national survey of 500 public school teachers and 800 parents, 90% of teachers and 86% of parents believed that physically active children are better able to learn and are better behaved in the classroom.18 While there has been research linking physical activity in children with the development of sensory-motor integration,19 there has been little research in children examining the relationship between physical activity and attention or other aspects of cognition. (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005)
These authors cite similar benefit in affect for children through unstructured play: "free play has the potential to improve many aspects of emotional well-being such as minimizing anxiety, depression, aggression, and sleep problems."

Who we are: Biophilia

I think what I have presented so far is only one possible manifestation of the absence of nature in our children's lives. There is some who believe we are hard-wired to need and appreciate nature.

The eminent entomologist/biologist E.O. Wilson proposed an idea a few years back called Biophilia (see his book for more: Biophilia) which suggests that human beings have an innate "tendency to focus on life and lifelike process" (Prologue, 1).

He explains this point a little more:
From infancy we concentrate happily on ourselves and other organisms. We learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move toward it like moths to a porch light. Novelty and diversity are particularly esteemed; the mere mention of the word extraterrestrial evokes reveries about still unexplored life, displacing the old and once potent exotic that drew earlier generations to remote islands and jungled interiors. That much is immediately clear, but a great deal more needs to be added. I will make the case that to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents. (Prologue, 1)
Here is another version of the same idea, from Stephen Kellert:
Assuming that the human affinity for nature is partially genetically encoded-a product of our having evolved in a natural rather than an artificial world-the importance of childhood must be recognized as the period when this contact with nature first occurs. Even for the human animal, which' appears uniquely capable of constructing its world and learning throughout its lifetime, the fundamental development of any biologically rooted tendency is likely to occur during childhood. (Kellert, 2005)
So, if we are hard-wired - genetically encoded - for this experience of nature, is there any evidence of what happens when we don't have it? Or, rather, is there evidence of how contact with nature impacts development, especially in children?

Nature and Child Development

According to John Davis (of Naropa University and School of Lost Borders), there are many developmental benefits to childhood nature experiences:

A) Kellert (2002) reviewed the literature on nature and child development and concluded that cognitive, affective, and moral development is impacted significantly and positively by direct contact with nature. By "direct" contact, he means contact with wild nature unmediated by significant human manipulation, in contrast to "indirect" contact (e.g., parks, zoos) or "vicarious contact" which is mediated by technology (e.g., television nature shows or books). See Kahn & Kellert (2002), Chowla, Sobel, Nabhan & Trimble, and others.

B) Kellert & Derr (1998) reviewed programs by Outward Bound, National Outdoor Leadership School, and Student Conservation Assn (N=700+ adolescents), both retrospectively and longitudinally, with surveys, in-depth interviews, observations, and qualitative analysis. There were some differences related to program orientations, but major positive impacts were observed in all three programs. Furthermore, these impacts increased over time following participation. "A large majority" of participants reported the experience as one of the most important in their lives with positive benefits for personality and character development. Specific benefits included self-confidence, self-concept, self-esteem, autonomy, and capacity to cope. There was a clear carry-over of effects from wilderness to urban settings. Results also indicate a strong increase in respect and appreciation for nature. Other, more qualitative, impacts included reports of increases in compassion, wisdom, guidance, and inner peace. See also reviews from Wilderness Research Center at University of Idaho (Hendee, Russell).

C) Edith Cobb (1977) conducted a large-scale retrospective study of the role of nature experiences in childhood. She reports positive developmental influences of nature that endure and grow into adulthood.

The list goes on, but it includes this crucial point:
E) The positive effects of nature are strongest in middle childhood (ages 6-12; in modern western cultures at least). While some research indicates that adolescents take a "time out" from nature, Kaplan & Kaplan (2002) argue that nature experiences for adolescents are significant and desirable as long as they also include the particular needs of adolescence, i.e., peer support, autonomy, and the opportunity to develop and demonstrate skill and strength. I would add that wilderness experiences offer opportunities to leave one's family, familiar community, and the roles that go with them, to try on new social roles, and to return with new self-images, behavior potential, and ways of relating. This is especially important during adolescence. (Davis, no date, section III)
Kellert (2005) divides a child's experience of nature into three types: direct, indirect, and vicarious (or symbolic) experience (p. 65). Direct experience is, obviously, the most immediate interaction with nature, the one where we are immersed in its leaves and dirt and water:
Direct contact refers to interaction with largely self-sustaining features and processes of the natural environment. These forms of direct contact include plants, animals, and habitats that function mostly independent of human input and control, although they may sometimes be affected by human activity. Direct experience of nature is often spontaneous and unplanned, occurring in relatively unmanaged areas, such as a meadow, a creek, a forest, or sometimes even a park or a child's backyard. Ecologist Robert Pyle describes these settings as places where "kids. . . [are] free to climb trees, muck about, catch things, and get wet." These areas include "watercourses, such as creeks, canals, ravines, and ponds, a big tree, a clump of brush, bosky dell, or hollow; parks, especially undeveloped ones; and old fields, pastures, and meadow." (Kellert, 65)
Equally important, at least for urban dwellers, are indirect experiences of nature - which we find in urban parks, zoos, botanical gardens, nature centers, arboretums, or museums. This can also include domesticated animals (pets such as dogs and cats, but also horses, reptiles, or birds), plants, or other natural elements brought into the highly managed human world.

Finally, there are vicarious, or symbolic, experiences of nature that do not involve contact with living creatures or environments but, rather, "with the image, representation, or metaphorical
expression of nature" (66). We are exposed to all manner of symbolic nature, including teddy bears, Lassie, Winne the Pooh, films such as Free Willy or Never Cry Wolf, shows on Animal Planet, or National Geographic specials. Interestingly, Kellert suggests that these vicarious experiences are ancient, going all the way back to first cave art.

Kellert goes on to suggest that direct experience of nature greatly enhances cognitive development (using Benjamin Bloom's six stages of intellectual development):
Stage one: Knowledge. The first stage emphasizes the child's emerging capacities to understand basic facts and terms and then apply this knowledge to presenting ideas, rendering broad classifications, and expressing a rudimentary understanding of causal relationships. Stage two: Comprehension. The second stage involves the child's developing capacity to interpret and paraphrase information and ideas and then extrapolate these understandings to other situations. Stage three: Application. The third stage stresses the child's maturing capacity to apply knowledge in generating ideas, concepts, and even principles applied to a wide range of situations. Stage four: Analysis. The fourth stage involves the child's evolving ability to examine and then break down knowledge into constituent parts and then use this understanding to elucidate underlying relationships. Stage five: Synthesis. The converse of analysis (stage four), the fifth stage emphasizes the child's ability to integrate and collate knowledge from discrete parts, organize it into structured wholes, and then use this knowledge to identity and understand relationships. Stage six: Evaluation. The final stage in cognitive development involves the child's ability to form judgments about the functional significance of parts of patterned and structured wholes based on carefully examining evidence, impacts, and outcomes. (Cited in Kellert, 67-68)
Exposure to nature aids children in naming, sorting, and classifying information and ideas. With comprehension and application, children develop the capacity to use information in other situations. Elizabeth Lawrence proposes the term cognitive biophilia to suggest that images and symbols of nature can be instrumental is human communication and maturation. Kellert goes on to examine the successive stages and how they interact with the experience of nature.

More importantly perhaps, Kellert looks at how nature impacts affective development, where he uses an emotional maturation model developed by David Krathwohl and his colleagues:
Stage one: Receiving. The first stage focuses on the child's developing awareness of and sensitivity to facts, information, and ideas, and the willingness to receive and consider this information.

Stage two: Responding. The second stage emphasizes the child's capacity to react to and gain satisfaction from receiving and responding to information, situations, and ideas.

Stage three: Valuing. The third stage involves the child's ability to attribute worth or importance to information, ideas, and situations, reflecting a clear and consistent set of preferences and commitments.

Stage four: Organization. The fourth stage emphasizes the child's ability to internalize and organize preferences and assumptions of worth into a consistent, stable, and predictable pattern of values and beliefs.

Stage five: Characterization by a value or value complex. The final stage reflects the child's ability to integrate values and beliefs into a coherent worldview or philosophy of life.

Only the first two stages of this taxonomy are considered here in examining children's experience of nature in affective development. Stages three through five are treated as a separate growth process that is neither entirely affective nor cognitive but, rather, is a combination of the two. In other words, values are viewed as a combination of intellect and feeling. (p. 70)
This is where we start to get to the crux of why nature is crucial to development. The first two stages, according to Kellert, help children to develop intellectual maturity as they generate emotional interests that can inspire them to explore and understand information and ideas. These emerging feelings are "building blocks" for the cognitive development defined above. Kellert cites psychologist Leonard Iozzi, who suggests that "the affective domain is the key entry point to learning and teaching" (70).

Randy White (2004) summarizes some of the benefits of children's experience of nature, or the detriments in a lack of time in nature:
Research provides convincing evidence of the more profound benefits of experiences in nature for children due to their greater plasticity and vulnerability (Wells & Evans 2003). The findings indicate that:
  • Children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are better able to concentrate after contact with nature (Faber Taylor et al. 2001).
  • Children with views of and contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. The greener, the better the scores (Faber Taylor et al. 2002, Wells 2000).
  • Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often (Fjortoft 2001, Grahn et al. 1997).
  • When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse with imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaborative skills (Faber Taylor et al. 1998, Fjortoft 2000, Moore & Wong 1997).
  • Exposure to natural environments improves children’s cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills (Pyle 2002).
  • Nature buffers the impact of life stress on children and helps them deal with adversity. The greater the amount of nature exposure, the greater the benefits (Wells 2003).
  • Play in a diverse natural environment reduces or eliminates anti-social behavior such as violence, bullying, vandalism and littering, as well reduces absenteeism (Coffey 2001, Malone & Tranter 2003, Moore & Cosco 2000).
  • Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity and instills a sense of peace and being at one with the world (Crain 2001).
  • Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder (Cobb 1977, Louv 1991). Wonder is an important motivator for life long learning (Wilson 1997).
  • Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other (Moore 1996).
  • A decrease in children’s time spent outdoors is contributing to an increase of children’s myopia (Nowak 2004).
  • Natural environments stimulate social interaction between children (Moore 1986, Bixler, Floyd & Hammutt 2002).
  • Outdoor environments are important to children’s development of independence and autonomy (Bartlett 1996).
For a full list of the articles cited here, the article by White is available online.

Applying this information to a Developmental Model of Masculinity

So this is a lot of information, and I haven't presented it in the most organized way - but all it weighs on how boys develop into men.

The most important parts to me are the following (some of these have not been fully discussed but come from the list by White):
1. Being in nature encourages cognitive and emotional development.
2. Being nature generates curiosity and more creativity.
3. Natural environments encourage social behavior between children.
4. Spending time in nature reduces the symptoms of various developmental issues, including stress, ADHD, and depression.
5. Increased self-confidence, self-concept, self-esteem, autonomy, and capacity to cope - all of which allow men to be less reactive and more emotionally balanced.
6. Children who grow with regular access to nature may express more humility.
7. We are biologically connected to nature (Biophilia) through our entire evolutionary history - we need that connection to be mentally healthy.
For boys who do not get to experience nature growing up, there will be cognitive, emotional, and social deficits as a result. These young men will not grow up to be mature men capable of individuating from their embeddedness in the reigning cultural ideals of what it means to be a man.

Importantly, boys who spend time in nature grow up with increased self-confidence, healthier self-concept, greater self-esteem, more autonomy, and a higher capacity to cope (Kellert & Derr, 1998) - all of which allow men to be less reactive and more emotionally balanced. These men are more likely to develop an individual sense of identity that is less constrained by cultural limitations and definitions. Because they have greater self-esteem and a healthier self-concept, as well as a greater sense of autonomy, they are more free to be masculine in the way that best fits them as individuals.

I'm not suggesting that being in and around nature is the be-all-and-end-all for children, especially boys, in their development - a serial killer to-be often spends time in nature mutilating animals. Nature cannot undo abuse and neglect, but for some boys it can help to mitigate their impact on the developing psyche.

Part of what I am proposing here is that the traditional models of development - which seem to stop at the boundary of our skin - are inadequate to explain healthy human development. A whole human being not only develops in the cognitive, affective, interpersonal, cultural, spatial, and kinesthetic lines (to name a few), but he also has an ecological self that stems from and defines his relationship to the natural world.
What if, from the beginning of life, nature were perceived as teacher, guide, source, as important to us as our families? How differently would we live? (Barrows, 1995, p. 110)
I suspect we would be quite different - and there would be fewer hindrances to healthy masculine development.


Barrows, E. (1995). The ecopsychology of child development. In Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind. Roszak, Gomes & Kanner, Eds. New York: Sierra Club Books.

Burdette, H.L. & Whitaker, R.C. (2005). Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005;159:46-50. Cobb, E. (1977). The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, New York, Columbia University Press.

Davis, J. (No date).
Psychological benefits of nature experiences: Research and theory (with special reference to transpersonal psychology and spirituality). Accessed on 4/23/10 from:

Gershon, J. (2002). A meta-analytic review of gender differences in ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders;Vol 5(3), Jan 2002, 143-154.

Kahn, Peter, Jr. & Kellert, Stephen. (2002). Children and nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary investigations . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kaplan, R. & Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature. Cambridge Press.

Kellert, S. & Derr, V. (1998). National study of outdoor wilderness experience. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Kellert, S.R. (2002). Experiencing Nature: Affective, Cognitive, and Evaluative Development, in Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kellert, S.R. (2005) Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Lawson, W. (2004). ADHD's Outdoor Cure: Finding relief in wide open spaces; Playing outdoors may curb the disorder.
Psychology Today; (March 1): p. 26-27.

Mitchell, N. (2010). Nature Deficit Disorder: the mind in urban combat. All in the Mind: 17 April 2010; Accessed 4/23/10

White, R. (2004). Young Children's Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children's Development & the Earth's Future. White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group:; accessed 4/23/10

Wilson, E.O. (1984).
Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wikipedia Citations:
  1. For more children, less time for outdoor play: Busy schedules, less open space, more safety fears, and lure of the Web keep kids inside by Marilyn Gardner, The Christian Science Monitor, June 29, 2006
  2. U.S. children and teens spend more time on academics by Diane Swanbrow, The University Record Online, The University of Michigan.
  3. Are your kids really spending enough time outdoors? Getting up close with nature opens a child's eyes to the wonders of the world, with a bounty of health benefits. by Tammie Burak, Canadian Living.
  4. Stiffler, Lisa (January 6, 2007), "Parents worry about 'nature-deficit disorder' in kids", Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
  5. "Is There Anybody Out There?", Conservation 8 (2), April-June 2007,
  6. Kellert, Stephen R. (ed.) (1993). The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press. ISBN 1-55963-147-3.
  7. Hodgkinson, Tom (2009). The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids. Hamish Hamilton. pp. 233. ISBN 978-0241143735.

No comments: