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Psychology Subdisciplines:History of Psychology
Developmental psychologists have largely neglected the study of children's relationship with animals even though animals are a primary focus in children's lives in a variety of forms: as live, stuffed, or imaginary companions; as captive or wild specimins; as zoo attractions; as targets of cruelty; as characters in books and on television; and as roles the children themselves assume (Melson, 2001, 2003; Myers, 2007; Myers & Saunders, 2002). Ask your students how many of them aspired at one time to be veterinarians or animal resucuers. In his book, The significance of children and animals: Social development and our connections to other species, Gene Myers (2007) describes ways that an anthropocentric focus in child development hinders our understanding of children's social, emotional, perceptual, and cognitive development. Gail Melson (2001) addressed this topic in her book, Why the Wild Things Are. Melson concurs with others who advocate a " biocentric" approach to the study of children's development (e. g., Kahn, 1999; Kahn & Kellert, 2002). She argues that a biocentric approach informed by the concept of "biophilia" (Kahn, 1997; Kellert, 1997; Kellert & Wilson, 1993; Wilson, 1984) will enlighten our understanding of children's love relationships, their comprehension of living systems (see next topic), their play, their fears, and their sense of self. Importantly, interaction with animals, especially pets, is a primary way that children learn about caring and about biological processes, so it follows that children’s concern for animals may serve as the foundation for broader ecological concern (Myers, 2007, 2013; Myers & Saunders, 2002).
"Folkbiology" is a term used to describe how laypersons intuitively perceive, categorize, and think about living things. Inagaki and Hatano (2004) reviewed research on their theory that children classify and explain biological phenomena as unique in terms of "'vitalistic causality, " a form of construal in which the primary causal concept is " life force. " Researchers have studied when and how children make distinctions between living and nonliving things-- and between plants, animals, and humans. They have also addressed the questions of whether the acquisition of folkbiological knowledge is a continuous developmental process or a discontinuous one in which a child's view of the world is replaced by a more sophisticated adult understanding (Coley, Soloman, & Shafto, 2002), and whether the acquisition of folkbiological knowledge occurs in the same way across cultures (e. g., Waxman, 2005). Research on children's folkbiology will not only broaden our understanding of cognitive development in general, but may also help us to better understand why and how adults' nonsustainable behaviors may be influenced by anthropocentric thinking and ignorance about ecology (Medin & Atran, 1999). Children’s naïve understanding of living things and natural systems are shaped by both the cultures in which they live and their experiences in nature (Medin & Atran, 2004). Lacking sufficient experience, children do not develop an accurate or nuanced understanding of the natural world. This is poignantly illustrated in the film Play Again (2010; see below) during a scene in which children easily identify corporate logos but struggle to name common plants such as dandelion. How children think about the natural world may influence their moral reasoning about it (see next topic).
Related to the the topic of children's cognitive understanding of the natural world is the issue of how they value nature. Peter Kahn (1997, 2002; Kahn & Friedman, 1995) conducted extensive cross-cultural interview research with children, young adults, and their parents, asking them about their environmental values and moral reasoning about environmental degradation. He observed two primary forms of environmental moral reasoning in children: " anthropocentric" reasoning, in which concern stems from how effects on the environment affect humans (e. g., pesticide contamination is bad because it harms human health), and " biocentric" reasoning, in which the natural world is valued intrinsically (e. g., wildlife protection is good because all living things have the right to exist). Kahn and others (e.g., Hussar & Horvath, 2011) have found that in general, children tend to be more morally concerned about people than other species, with older children more likely to exhibit biocentric reasoning than younger children. Onr This may be related to older children's more advanced understanding of natural systems. For example, one study found that the older children were, the more likely they were to recognize that animals need healthy habitat, not just food and water (Myers, Saunders, & Garrett, 2004). When children exhibit biocentric moral reasoning, they tend to emphasize animal welfare with less regard for plant life, possibly possibly because their awareness of plants as “alive” develops later than their awareness of animals (Melson, 2013).
Peter Kahn (2002) argues that apparent lack of environmental concern is not merely a function of complacency about environmental degradation, nor is it explainable simply in terms of the environment being a secondary priority relative to the immediacy of basic material needs; instead, each generation judges environmental conditions relative to their own experience. For example, when Kahn and colleagues interviewed children growing up in the heavily polluted city of Houston, they seemed unaware of the degraded conditions around them, because for these children it was normal. Kahn suggests that as environmental degradation increases, each generational cohort's standard for comparison also becomes more denuded, resulting in a decreasing sensitivity to the magnitude and scope of the environmental crisis. He calls this phenomenon "environmental generational amnesia."
Environmental psychologists have studied place preferences in both adults and children. Like adults, children show preferences for natural settings and report that nature offers restoration and relief from stress (e.g., Korpela, 2002; Simmons, 1994; Wells & Evans, 2003). Research on children has also explored preferences for play settings. Several studies have demonstrated children's preference for natural settings, especially those that provide a sense of refuge (e.g., Kirkby, 1989; Moore, 1986a, 1986b). Refuges in the form of forts and dens in natural settings are beloved play spaces for many children, perhaps because they represent areas under the children's control (Sobel, 2002). Natural play spaces offer developmental benefits. For example, researchers have found that children are more active in settings containing foliage, uneven ground, and natural materials such as rocks and mulch, and that such settings spark an increase in creativity and imaginative play (Nedovic & Morrissey, 2013). Ask students what were their favorite places to play.
Thy physical environment in which children develop has a significant influence on how they develop. (Evans, 2006; Ferguson, Cassels, MacAllister, & Evans, 2013; Myers, 2012). Recent decades have witnessed a dramatic change in where and how children spend their leisure time. Children are becoming increasingly sedentary, spending much of their time indoors, preoccupied with electronic screens. Natural outdoor play spaces are disappearing. Parental fears about stranger abduction have increased to the point that kids' solitary exploration outside the home is often a forbidden activity. As a result, children's relationship with nature is becoming more mediated and more virtual, to the extent that some children have little to no actual experience with the animals, settings, etc. that they experience through videogames or nature shows.
(How) does this unprecedented separation from the natural world impact children's development? This question has been addressed by several scholars (e.g., Kellert, 2002; Louv, 2005; Nabhan & Trimble, 1994) and the general consensus is alarm. A groundbreaking contribution on the topic was child advocate Richard Louv's (2005) Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. “Nature-deficit disorder” is not a medically-recognized label and Louv is not a psychologist or psychiatrist; still, this book offers a highly accessible discussion of the negative effects associated with children’s increasing disconnect from nature. In his section entitled, “Why the young (and the rest of us) need nature,” Louv describes some psychological and medical research on the health benefits of contact with nature, and then suggests that lack of contact with nature may be a factor in high rates of childhood obesity, overprescription of antidepressants to children, and the prevalence of Attention Deficit Disorder. He laments children’s sensory disconnect from nature, which he attributes to a culture characterized by climate-controlled interior spaces, electronic distractions, and the substitution of virtual knowledge for first-hand experience. He discusses psychologist Howard Gardner’s idea of a “naturalist intelligence” and describes research on how creativity in children’s play is facilitated by natural settings.
Be sure to ask students what they think about the idea of "nature-deficit disorder." Introduce the evolutionary psychology concept of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA; Gangestad & Simpson, 2007), not a specific time or place, but a set of conditions to which humans are best adapted. Though the EEA is largely unknown, we do know that the backdrop was wild nature. Therefore, in theory, the natural world is the optimal venue for human development.
Louv provides suggestions and inspiration for parents and educators who would like to mend the disconnect. Since Louv's book came out, several campaigns to get children outside have sprung up in the U.S. and elsewhere. See the films/websites below for examples.
Development is affected by environmental context, and our contemporary context is a contaminated one. The vast majority of human-made chemicals have not been tested for safety. For example, of the more than 84,000 synthetic chemicals registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in 1976, only about 200 have been tested. Of these, only nine have been subject to regulation for posing an “unreasonable risk” to human health. These include asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and lead. In spite of regulations, these toxicants are still present in our environment, including in drinking water and food.
Toxicants affect development by acting as mutagens (damaging chromosomes, threatening cell vitality), teratogens (interfereing with prenatal development), neurotoxins (destroying or damaging neurons, interfering with neural communication), and endocrine disruptors (mimicking or exaggerating hormones, interfering with normal hormone functioning). Infants and children are more vulnerable to toxicants than adults are because their nervous systems and organs are still developing (Giordano & Costa, 2012).
Exposures to environmental toxicants are associated with a variety of developmental problems including significant impairments in learning, cognition, attention, emotion, behavior, and psychological well-being (Grandjean & Landrigan, 2006, 2014). Several toxicants, including lead, mercury, and pesticides are implicated as contributing causes of autism-spectrum disorders (Gorini, Muratori, & Morales, 2014; Leslie & Koger, 2011; Rossignol, Genius, & Frye, 2014). Pesticides are among the chemicals exempt from the TSCA. Although lead is regulated, one place it shows up is in cosmetics, which are also exempt from the TSCA.
See the Biopsychology page of this site for a list of films about environmental toxicants.
A major contributor to the environmental crisis is material consumption in industrial cultures. Materialistic values are moderately predictive of environmental attitudes and behavior (Hurst, Dittmar, Bond, & Kasser, 2013). Studies of twins suggest that individual variability in materialism is due almost entirely to life experiences rather than genetic inheritance (Giddens, Schermer, & Vernon, 2009). In the U.S., materialistic values among teenagers peaked in the 1980s and have remained high since. possibly due to increases in the factors that thought to cause some individuals to be more materialistic than others: unmet emotional needs and materialistic modeling. (Twenge & Kasser, 2013). A major source of materialistic modeling is television. A large share of today's commercial advertising is aimed directly at children--and the form this advertising takes is informed by sophisticated knowledge about children's social, emotional, and cognitive development (Calvert, 2008; Levin & Linn, 2003). Ask students how they think being socially defined as "consumers" affects children's development.
Rituals associated with the transition from childhood to adulthood are common in ancestral and contemporary indigenous cultures. In his 1982 book Nature and Madness, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Human Ecology, Paul Shepard, presented his thesis that in contemporary urban industrial cultures, humans do not become as mature as they potentially can be. He suggests that human ontogeny (development of the individual) evolved in a context in which life was characterized by connection to nature and everyday experience was inextricable from the larger rhythms and patterns of the natural world. Shepard claims that the contemporary society begins breaking down this grounded sense of self in childhood and fails to nurture a nature-connected trajectory of growth and development in its members. In Shepard's words,
The individual growth curve, as described by Bruno Bettelheim, Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and others, is a biological heritage of the deep past. It is everyman's tree of life, now pruned by civic gardeners as the outer branches and twigs become incompatible with the landscaped order. The reader may extend that metaphor as he wishes, but I shall move to an animal image to suggest that the only society more frightful than one run by children, as in Golding's Lord of the Flies, might be one run by childish adults.
Shepard attributes the ecological crisis to the immaturity of the adults who are causing it. He laments the absence of nature-connected ritualistic transitions through developmental stages that are typical in cultures living sustainably in harmony with their ecological context. Ask students what they think about this and whether they are familiar with any such transition rituals.
Within the context of technologically sophisticated, urban-industrial cultures, some individuals choose to express their proenvironmental attitudes in significantly life-changing ways, opting for alternative lifestyles and/or dedicating their lives to environmental activism. What factors lead lives in this direction? Environmental educators and others have suggested that at least one important influence is significant life experience related to the natural world. For example, Louise Chawla (1998, 1999) interviewed more than 50 environmentalists in Norway and Kentucky about their motivations; the two most frequently mentioned influences (each mentioned by 77% of the sample) were positive experiences in nature during childhood and adolescence, and family members who modeled respect for nature. Wendy Horowitz (1996) adopted a lifespan development perspective when she inteviewed a smaller sample of 29 environmental activists. These individuals reported that their nature-connectedness typically began in childhood, that their environmental concern developed as a result of experiences with nature and modeling by influential others in and outside of their families, and that the development of their environmental ethic was tied to identity and generativity issues. Finger (1994) surveyed more than 1700 Swiss individuals and found that although knowledge about environmental issues did not significantly predict environmental behaviors (other than activism), direct life experience with the natural environment did. Ewert, Place, and Sibthorp (2005) conducted a regression analysis on the environmental attitudes of a sample of more than 500 undergraduates and found that only certain forms of early life outdoor experience predicted ecocentric-anthropocentric beliefs. These studies and others suggest that environmentally oriented adults tend to have personal histories that include recreational time spent in wild places, but having childhood play experiences in natural settings does not necessarily lead to proenvironmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood (Bixler, Floyd, & Hammitt, 2002).
Gene Myers uses community-based learning activities that pair individual college students with school children from the local community. Students conduct a series of sessions to explore how children conceptualize their ecological environment.
(contributed by Gene Myers)
As described above, researchers have found that significant childhood experience with nature is common in the autobiographies of adult environmental advocates; however, having had such experiences does not necessarily lead to adult environmental concern. The objective of this activity is to have students reflect on how their childhood experiences may or may not be related to their adult relationship with the natural environment. Ask students to look back at the role of nature in their childhoods by presenting them with the following probes:
Have students write a paper about their autobiographical memories and analysis of them. Students can then discuss how universal, conditional, or idiosyncratic they think our relationships with nature are. (See also Jurin & Hutchinson, 2005, for a description of a related activity in an environmental history course).
Based on anecdotes from instructors who have done an activity like this one, it is likely that facination with nonhuman nature will figure prominently in students' responses to the first two probes (even if these are initially presented in class without any priming about "nature"). Students frequently mention books that involve survival (e.g., Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, The Hunger Games) simple living close to nature (e.g., The Boxcar Children, Little House on the Prairie), and anthropomorphised animal communities (e.g., the Warrior series, the Redwall series). They fondly recollect exploring the woods, building forts, collecting bugs, etc. Students tend to find this a worthwhile and enlightening exercise. (Contributed by Gene Myers, Joanne Vining, and Britain Scott).
This exercise is a variation of the one above and involves interviewing a significant other in the lives of the students (parent, grandparent, etc.) to explore how that individual's nature-based encounters shaped the person. (Contributed by Sylvie Shaw) In this interview, students may also want to ask the subject about environmental degradation he or she has witnessed since childhood and relate these observations to the topic of environmental generational amnesia (see above).
Furby is one of the first " emoto-tronic" animal-like toys, introduced in 1998, with updated versions released in 2005 and 2012. Furby looks like a cross between a furry mammal and a bird. He speaks "Furbish" and English. He responds to a limited number of voice commands (e. g., " Hey Furby, show me a dance"). When he is asked to tell a story, he talks about his island of origin which has "many rocks, trees, and water" and is " beautiful." Furby spontaneously announces, " I LOVE you! " He purrs when his back is petted and giggles when his tummy is tickled. If an instructor has access to a Furby (especially the original model, which was closer to a real animal than the updated versions), it is an interesting exercise to bring it into the classroom, let the college age students interact with it for awhile, and then ask them to reflect upon the following questions:
Alternatively, the instructor could have a child or group of children interact with Furby with the college students watching, and then discuss Furby's impact (after the kids leave).
Research on robotic life forms suggest that young children tend to interact with robots and stuffed animals just as they would with a real animal (Kahn, Friedman, Pérez-Granados, & Frier, 2006). Older children treat robotic animals less like real animals (Melson, Kahn, Beck, Friedman, & Roberts, et al, 2009), but in one study even 59% of adults in on online discussion described the robotic dog AIBO in ways similar to living pets (e.g., “I consider him to be part of my family” and “I care about him as a pal.”) (Melson, Kahn, Beck, & Friedman, 2009).
Developmental psychologists study children's literature for a variety of reasons, but researchers have paid little attention to the pervasiveness of nonhuman nature in children's books (Melson, 2001). One exception is Krueger and Krueger (2005) who discuss what significance children's books about animals, and the illustrations in the books, may have for the children, and for the adults who read the books aloud. Adopting a psychodynamic perspective, these authors suggest that animals in children's books serve primarily as anthropomorphized projections of the children's own instinctual drives, rather than as examples of children's connection to nonhuman nature as it is. A subset of children's literature about nonhuman nature focuses on conservation themes. Two classic examples are Dr. Seuss's (1971) The Lorax and Bill Peet's (1974) The Wump World. These books are similar in that both include familiar but unreal animals (i.e., Wumps resemble moose minus the antlers, and the Swomee Swans and Brown Barbaloots in The Lorax are imaginary varieties of birds and bears). Both books contain strong themes against industrial pollution and overuse of natural resources. In historical perspective, these books are noteworthy because they represent the first attempts to reach out to children with environmental messages post-Earth Day 1970. A fun class activity is to read one or both of these books aloud (in the instructor's best animated library-story-hour style). After reading the book, break students into small groups of 3 or 4 and ask them to discuss any memories they have of the book from childhood, their reactions to hearing the story as adults, and their ideas about whether and how the book might affect the environmental attitudes and behaviors of children at different stages of cognitive development. After students have discussed their own ideas about the use of The Lorax in environmental education for children, the instructor can bring in the perspectives of environmental educators (Pleasants, 2005) and school teachers (Henderson, Kennedy, & Chamberlain, 2004) who have questioned the effectiveness of this book as an environmental education tool. If students have seen the 2012 Universal Pictures film, ask them to consider how the themes and storyline of this version reflect, and differ from, Dr. Suess's original message. Ask students whether they know of any other children's books or films with conservation themes.
Due largely to technology, children in industrialized cultures are spending more time indoors, preoccupied with electronic devices. These documentary films address the implications of this phenomenon for children's development. All are part of larger campaigns to get children back outside, as described on their websites.
PROJECT WILD THING (2013, 87 min.)
This documentary from diretor David Bond and producer Ashley Jones takes a look at an increasing global problem – the growing lack of connection between children and nature. Through a marketing campaign for nature throughout the UK, Bond has started a movement promoting awareness for the link between children’s well-being and time spent outdoors. The website for the movement also includes a community idea forum and an app to get some ideas about how to get children outside. Detailed description of the film and the Project Wild Thing movement
NATURE KIDS (2013, 60 min..)
In today's world the average American will spend 90% of their time indoors and the average American child will spend 6 to 10 hours a day in front of a screen! What are the consequences of an indoor childhood and what can be done about it? Find out in this timely, entertaining and inspirational documentary. Featuring best-selling author, Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods) and TV’s Dr. Scott Sampson (Dinosaur Train). Nature Kids will challenge you to look deep within the natural world and deep within yourself to rediscover the true meaning of childhood. [excerpt from website] Detailed description of film and The Nature Kids Institute
PLAY AGAIN (2010, 88 min or 52 min..)
This award-winning documentary focuses on six teens that have been “unplugged” from all electronics and are submersed in the natural world for the first time. With commentary from numerous experts in subject areas ranging from education to genetics, the film showcases the problems with our newest generation being so disconnected from nature. Detailed description
MOTHER NATURE'S CHILD (2010, 57 min..)
This film explores nature’s powerful role in children’s health and development through the experience of toddlers, children in middle childhood and adolescents. The film marks a moment in time when a living generation can still recall childhoods of free play outdoors; this will not be true for most children growing up today. The effects of “nature deficit disorder” are now being noted across the country in epidemics of child obesity, attention disorders, and depression. [excerpt from the website] Detailed description
Film: CONSUMING KIDS: THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF CHILDHOOD (2008, 67 min..)
With virtually no government oversight or public outcry, the multibillion-dollar youth marketing industry has used the latest advances in psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to transform American children into one of the most powerful and profitable consumer demographics in the world. American kids, targeted from birth with sales pitches for everything from Hollywood merchandise and junk food to iPods, cell phones, and the family car, now influence an estimated $700 billion in annual consumer spending. Consuming Kids traces the evolution and impact of this unprecedented phenomenon. Drawing on the insights of children's health experts, media critics, and industry insiders, it blows the lid off the youth marketing industry's stealth tactics and explores the effects of consumerism on the imaginative lives of children [excerpt from website]. Detailed description
Film: KIDS + MONEY (2007, 33 min.)
An original short film by award-winning filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield, kids + money is a conversation with young people from diverse Los Angeles communities about the role of money in their lives. From rich to poor, Pacific Palisades to East L.A., kids address how they are shaped by a culture of consumerism. [Excerpt from website] Detailed description
Website: CAMPAIGN FOR A COMMERCIAL-FREE CHILDHOOD (CCFC)
CCFC is at the forefront of national efforts to reduce children’s screen time and insure children time and space for active and creative play, face time with caring adults, and a connection with nature. [excerpt from website] About CCFC
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