Get 'em While They're Young

The Work of Louise Chawla

In his memoir, E.O. Wilson writes of trying to lure a giant ray to the Florida seashore as a seven-year old boy. His parents were divorcing, so he had been sent to stay at a coastal boarding house. There, he spent long days alone, exploring the beaches and bays near Pensacola. After a brief glimpse of a huge ray off a dock, Wilson became fascinated with the idea of seeing larger and larger fish, and even, he hoped, enticing that ray back for another look.

So he baited lines, caught small fish, used the small fish to lure larger fish, and, mostly, waited, immersed in the nature of the Florida coastline. Though he never attracted the ray back, he did fall in love with a Gulf toadfish he described as “one of the ugliest of all sea creatures.” At age seven, Wilson writes, he experienced the joy of wildness that eventually led to a distinguished career as a scientist and nature lover.

And that – that early experience with the outdoors – is how environmentalists are made. He writes:

Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming. (p. 12)

“Just searching and dreaming…” is there a better way to learn? Organically, by following one’s own natural curiosity and amazement? The names and facts come later – the fascination comes first.

Photo courtesy University of Colorado.

Starting about 30 years ago, University of Colorado professor Louise Chawla started systematically interviewing environmentalists around the world to unpack that fascination. Her results (building on many others’) were overwhelming: three-quarters or more of nature-minded adults had “positive experiences of natural areas in childhood”! Chawla and others, in the end, showed a strong connection between childhood experiences outdoors and environmental sensitivity.

Here’s an excerpt from Chawla’s literature review:

An interview study of 51 young adults who showed strong interests in natural history and ecology found that they remembered positive experiences of exploratory play in nature, while in contrast, ten young adults who lacked these interests either did not recall free play in nature or described having uncomfortable outdoor experiences forced upon them. (p. 147)

“Uncomfortable experiences forced upon them…” Yeah, I don’t imagine that would build an environmentalist!

Chawla is careful to note that these connections are correlations and not necessarily causal. That is, people who camp a lot as kids might also be raised in homes with pro-environmental values, which they then later soak up and reproduce.

But think back to E.O. Wilson. His family was not especially present; his parents were divorcing and sent him off to the shore for the summer while they settled their personal affairs. (As an aside, let us all marvel that less than a century ago, it seemed acceptable to install your 7-year old son, on his own, at a boarding house for the summer.)

And yet, despite little influence from his family, Wilson’s first outdoors, that brief glimpse at a giant ray off the Florida panhandle set him on his path. A minute or two of wonder and awe in his youth led him to a life spent learning and teaching about the natural world.

So What?

It’s so important for these kids to be able to say, “Wow, this is a real fossil in my hand! … This is real!”

  • Kady Yeomans

So… that’s what we do! We, as informal educators, expose learners to the real world in a way unparalleled by their classroom experiences. On this week’s podcast episode, science educator Kady Yeomans describes the formative experience of her youth that led her into a career of archaeology and museum education:

I pulled a pot out of the ground … several thousand years old, and my thumbprint matched the thumbprint of the person who made the pot. And I had to sit there for a minute and collect myself. … it’s so important for these kids to be able to say, “Wow, this is a real fossil in my hand! … This is real!”

Sometimes, informal education complements classroom education. But other times – by mediating authentic, awe-inspiring connections with the worlds of nature, music, sports, culture, and art – we non-classroom educators have the potential to change the direction of children’s lives.

  • Chawla, L. (2007). Childhood experiences associated with care for the natural world: A theoretical framework for empirical results. Children, Youth and Environments, 17(4), 144–170. JSTOR.
  • Wilson, E. O. (1995). Naturalist. Warner Books.
A large manta ray, seen from underneath, with the sun behind.


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