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Where the wild things aren’t? Nature vanishing from kids’ books, study finds

Feb. 23, 2012
Courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln
and World Science staff

An alarm­ing trend not­ed in past re­search—that Amer­i­cans are los­ing their con­nec­tion with na­ture—is al­so strik­ingly ev­i­dent in re­spected chil­dren’s books. So says a group of re­search­ers who ex­am­ined im­ages in nearly 300 award-winning chil­dren’s books pub­lished from 1938 through 2008.

“Nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments have all but dis­ap­peared,” wrote Uni­vers­ity of Nebraska-Lincoln so­ci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus J. Al­len Wil­liams Jr., and col­leagues, re­port­ing their find­ings in the jour­nal So­ci­o­lo­g­i­cal In­quiry. The books they assessed were all win­ners or hon­or re­cip­i­ents of the pres­tig­ious Calde­cott Med­al for chil­dren’s books.

Sci­en­tists re­ported in 2008 that Amer­i­cans and pos­sibly peo­ple around the world are spend­ing less and less time on out­door ac­ti­vi­ties, a trend that some wor­ry will lead to de­clin­ing glob­al health, di­min­ish­ing in­ter­est in na­ture and fal­ter­ing com­mit­ment to en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion. Wil­liams’ study does­n’t say this pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied trend in­flu­enced what is hap­pen­ing in books, but it does note that a steady in­crease in built en­vi­ron­ments and de­cline in nat­u­ral ones are con­sist­ent with this de­vel­op­ment.

“I am con­cerned that this lack of con­tact may re­sult in car­ing less about the nat­u­ral world, less em­pa­thy for what is hap­pen­ing to oth­er spe­cies and less un­der­stand­ing of many sig­nif­i­cant en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems,” Wil­liams said.

Wil­liams and col­leagues looked at wheth­er book il­lus­tra­tions de­picted a nat­u­ral en­vi­ronment, such as a jun­gle or a for­est; a built en­vi­ronment, such as a house, a school or an of­fice; or some­thing in-be­tween, such as a mowed lawn. They al­so not­ed wheth­er any an­i­mals were in the pic­tures—and if so, if those crea­tures were wild, do­mes­ti­cat­ed or took on hu­man qual­i­ties.

Over­all, they found that built en­vi­ron­ments were de­picted in 58 per­cent of the im­ages and were the ma­jor en­vi­ronment 45 per­cent of the time, while nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments ap­peared in 46 per­cent of the im­ages and were the ma­jor en­vi­ronment 32 per­cent of the time. But while built and nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments were al­most equally likely to be shown from the late 1930s un­til the 1960s, ­ci­ties and towns and the in­doors started to in­crease at the ex­pense of na­ture in the mid-1970s.

While the study was lim­it­ed to Calde­cott awardees, the re­search­ers said the find­ings are im­por­tant be­cause the award leads to strong sales and the hon­orees are fea­tured in schools and li­brar­ies. Calde­cott win­ners al­so can in­flu­ence tastes for chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture more gen­er­al­ly. Calde­cott awardees are the chil­dren’s books judged by the Amer­i­can Li­brary As­socia­t­ion to have the best il­lustra­t­ions in a giv­en year.

The study “does sug­gest that the cur­rent genera­t­ion of young chil­dren lis­ten­ing to the sto­ries and look­ing at the im­ages in chil­dren’s books are not be­ing so­cial­ized, at least through this source, to­ward great­er un­der­stand­ing and ap­precia­t­ion of the nat­u­ral world and the place of hu­mans with­in it,” the au­thors wrote.


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An alarming trend noted in past research—that Americans are losing their connection with nature—is also strikingly evident in respected children’s books, a new study has found. Researchers led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor emeritus J. Allen Williams Jr. examined images in nearly 300 award-winning children’s books published from 1938 through 2008. All books were winners or honor recipients of the prestigious Caldecott Medal for children’s books. “Natural environments have all but disappeared,” Williams and colleagues wrote in reporting theif findings, published in the journal Sociological Inquiry. Scientists reported in 2008 that Americans and possibly people around the world are spending less and less time on outdoor activities, a trend that some worry will lead to declining global health, diminishing interest in nature and faltering commitment to environmental protection. Williams’ study doesn’t say this previously identified trend influenced what is happening in books, but it does note that a steady increase in built environments and decline in natural ones are consistent with this development. Williams and colleagues looked at whether images depicted a natural environment, such as a jungle or a forest; a built environment, such as a house, a school or an office; or something in-between, such as a mowed lawn. They also noted whether any animals were in the pictures—and if so, if those creatures were wild, domesticated or took on human qualities. Overall, they found that built environments were depicted in 58 percent of the images and were the major environment 45 percent of the time, while natural environments appeared in 46 percent of the images and were the major environment 32 percent of the time. But while built and natural environments were almost equally likely to be shown from the late 1930s until the 1960s, cities and towns and the indoors started to increase at the expense of nature in the mid-1970s. “I am concerned that this lack of contact may result in caring less about the natural world, less empathy for what is happening to other species and less understanding of many significant environmental problems,” Williams said. While the study was limited to Caldecott awardees, the researchers said the findings are important because the award leads to strong sales and the honorees are featured in schools and libraries. Caldecott winners also can influence tastes for children’s literature more generally. Caldecott awardees are the children’s books judged by the American Library Association to have the best illustrations in a given year. “This does not mean, of course, that environmentalism is not an important part of American culture, but it does suggest that the current generation of young children listening to the stories and looking at the images in children’s books are not being socialized, at least through this source, toward greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it,” the authors wrote.