Connecting Children to Nature

I’ve learned a lot about Gen Z in the past 12 years. Back in 2008, I was a new mom in Mount Shasta, California. Richard Louv’s recently published book Last Child in the Woods created a shockwave in the environmental community. Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” which reflected the fact children were spending 50% fewer hours outdoors than previous generations. As the nation’s largest conservation organization, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) was taking a hard look at technology’s impacts on children. They asked me to help. I drafted a report “Connecting Today’s Kids with Nature: A Policy Action Plan.”

In 2008, data indicated that kids spent 6.5 hours a day connected to technology. The peer-reviewed science also concluded that unstructured outdoor play reduces anxiety, increases concentration, and supports overall fitness. NWF believed that federal agencies, states, and local communities needed to step up. Policies could help secure safe places for kids to play, promote environmental education, and ensure that kids played outside. Parents also needed to put down their cellphones and go outside with their kids. Back then, I had two young children. As an environmental lawyer and avid hiker, I was keenly interested in my Gen Zers and their relationship to nature.

Shortly after publishing Last Child in the Woods, Louv created the Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit dedicated to connecting children to the outdoors. Since 2008, more scientists have evaluated programs that connect children with nature. Research from around the world demonstrates that time outside benefits children’s development and sense of well-being. Environmental education helps students achieve in the sciences. In 2016, science writer Florence Williams published The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us HappierHer book details recent data on the importance of spending time outside for mental and physical health. Williams shows that humans are hard-wired to connect with the outdoors.

Over the past decade policies to support young people’s connection to nature have exploded. According to the Youth Outdoor Policy Playbook, school systems across the country support outdoor education. Oregon provides students at least one week long outdoor education experience. In 2010, Washington, D.C. codified a “ A Healthy Schools Act” that promotes school gardens and outdoor play. School systems have invested in integrated environmental education.For example, the Maryland Green Schools Act of 2019 provides funding for green schools and environmental science programs. California offers an integrated curriculum on environmental studies for students K-12.Wisconsin’s Green & Healthy Schools initiative recognizes schools for promoting sustainability. Progress has been made on the policy front.

But have these policy developments made a difference to Gen Z? Quantitative studies are sparse. Nonetheless, a 2019 review of environmental education and outdoor learning programs makes a strong case that they have made a difference in supporting a conservation ethic. Policies and programs connecting kids to nature have helped students manage stress, focus better, connect the sciences, and understand the importance of the outdoors. We all need to put down our phones, but the evidence indicates that these outdoor learning efforts work for Gen Z.

What we know about Gen Z (born in 1995–2015) as they come of age:

Gen Z spends more time with digital content than any generation. Research shows that most Gen Z kids have five pieces of technology and often use up to three devices at a time. Jean M. Twinge, professor at San Diego University, notes that almost all GenZers have access to or own a smartphone. A 2019 marketing study found that more than half of Gen Z spends about 10 hours a day on digital content across devices. That’s nearly a 60% increase from 12 years ago.

Gen Z suffers from anxiety and depression at greater rates than previous generations. The 2018 Cigna Loneliness Index states that Gen Z suffers from loneliness more than any other generation. Rates of drug use, alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy have plummeted with Gen Z compared to other generations. Gen Z is spending less time together hanging out in person. “I think we like our phones more than actual people” one of Twinge’s 13-year-old interviewees stated. Twinge points out that “12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.” The Loneliness Index also concludes that “social media is not a predictor of loneliness.” This statement surprised me given the news on cyberbullying, but it’s aligned with my kids’ perceptions of social media. My children insist that world news is the major anxiety trigger. They also argue that there is less of a stigma associated with mental health for Gen Z so they are more likely to talk about depression and anxiety.

Gen Z cares about uniqueness, creativity, and ethics, and less about social status. Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability managers know that Gen Z will soon make up 40% of the consumer market. Unlike millennials, they are interested in products, not just experiences. But, they want socially conscious brands that celebrate their individuality. A 2015 marketing study discovered that Gen Z doesn’t just want to consume culture, they want to create it. After surveying 12 to 14-year-olds, the marketers concluded that Gen Z are “empowered, connected, empathetic self-starters that want to stand out and make a difference in the world. Sixty percent of Gen Z wants to change the world, compared to 37% of Millennials.

In2018, McKinsey consulting firm dove into the data on Gen Z. They determined that the essence of Gen Z is a search for truth and named the cohort “True Gen.” Individual expression, social change, pragmatism, and inclusiveness are core values of this generation. Given that Gen Z was born during the recession of 2008 they are seen as more practical and hard working than Millennials. Gen Z parents are often Gen Xers, who are known for their skepticism and self-reliance. Gen Z has a very entrepreneurial spirt. Seventy-two percent of Gen Z high schoolers want to start their own business. “Gen Z may just turn out to be the most competent, productive and high achieving generation we’ve seen in a while,” writes Adam Piore for Newsweek.

Despite all their time online, Gen Z cares more about the environment than previous generations. Marketing research on Gen Z demonstrates that protecting the environment is a core value. Being green is part of Gen Z’s everyday life, a stark difference from other generations. Millennials care deeply about global warming and score a few points higher on some climate polls than Gen Z. The polls were taken before the climate strikes of 2019, however. The size, scale, and leadership of the strikes demonstrate Gen Z’s zeal to fight climate change. The corresponding rise of “eco-anxiety” also underscores Gen Z’s concerns. A 2019 Amnesty International survey of more than 10,000 Gen Zers from across the world found that climate change is their number one issue.

I argued in 2008 that time outside for children was essential to the development of a long-term environmental ethic. The policies that promote environmental and outdoor education have surely helped, but the reality of climate change may have upended my original thesis. The climate crisis is so big that the conservation ethic is obvious to Gen Z even as they spend more time online.

The existential threat of climate change has activated Gen Z. Greta Thunberg’s passionate advocacy is the epitome of Gen Z and reflects the connection they have to the planet. We know that unplugging from technology is good for our health. But Gen Z gets that there is more at stake than wellness when it comes to safeguarding the environment.

Twelve years after my NWF report, I now live in Bozeman, Montana near Yellowstone National Park. My children are in middle school and high school. They go hiking occasionally, but only when we make them. They are youtube watching, instagram posting, digital kids. Yet, they care fiercely about climate change, social justice, and creative action. We work together to put down our phones, go outside, and be present.

We need Gen Z’s pragmatism, drive for uniqueness, and individuality. Even with Gen Z’s increased digital exposure, the collective work to create policies to connect them to nature seems to have made a difference. They are prepared to use their voices, creativity, and savvy technological prowess to protect the planet. And — that connection, albeit starkly different from our outdoor experiences growing up — may save us all.

Heather White is a conservation policy and green living expert. She is the President & CEO of Heather White Strategies, and former President & CEO of Yellowstone Forever and Executive Director of EWG. She lives in Bozeman, Montana.