Want Kinder, Less selfish Kids? Take Them to National Parks!

Taking your kids to the parks could help improve their social empathy. NPT file photo of ranger-led tour in Olympic National Park.

Our children spend less time outdoors than any generation in American history. New research suggests that the cost may be higher than we think. In addition to fat, flab, and declining appreciation for nature, less time outdoors translates into less caring for others.

An article posted on digital Scientific American caught my eye the other day. Written by P. Wesley Schultz, The Moral Call of the Wild summarized and discussed the results of an interesting study published in a recent issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2009; 0: 0146167209341649v1) under the title Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity.

Written by University of Rochester researchers Netta Weinstein, Andrew K. Przybylski, and Richard M. Ryan, the P&SP journal article reported the results of research providing empirical evidence that, as reviewer Schultz puts it, “exposure to nature can affect our priorities and alter what we think is important in life. In short, we become less self-focused and more other-focused. Our value priorities shift from personal gain, to a broader focus on community and connection with others.”

It appears to work the other way, too. As exposure to nature declines, people exhibit more self-focused behavior.

As Schulz went on to explain:

…. In their first study, the researchers randomly assigned individuals to view a slide show that either depicted scenes of human-made or natural environments. The slides were matched across a variety of characteristics, to eliminate the possibility that the results were due to things like color, complexity, or brightness of the images. The participants were instructed to try to immerse themselves in the images—to notice the colors and textures and imagine the sounds and smells. After watching the slide show (which took about 8 minutes), the participants completed a series of questions about their life aspirations.

Of particular interest were responses to extrinsic life aspirations , like being financially successful or admired by many people; as contrasted with intrinsic life aspirations , like deep and enduring relationships, or working toward the betterment of society. The results showed that people who watched the nature images scored significantly lower on extrinsic life aspirations, and significantly higher on intrinsic life aspirations. The effect was particularly strong for participants who reported being “immersed” in the images. This basic effect was further explored in three subsequent studies. The later studies showed the same effect for true nature experiences: being in a small room with plants, for example.

Now that’s mighty interesting, folks. It’s a well-documented fact that experiences in predominantly natural settings yield restorative and regenerative benefits in the form of reduced stress and improved physical and psychological well-being. But much less is known about the broader social ramifications of natural experiences. If not exactly startling, these research results are thought-provoking and potentially very instructive.

The bottom line seems to be this: If parents want their kids to grow up to be kinder people – if they want to increase the likelihood that their offspring will buy into the concept of caring-and-sharing -- one of the things they need to do is increase their exposure to the natural world. Get them outside more. Take them to national parks, for instance.

Of course, it’s never wise to base important policy decisions on a single study. What we’ve got here is actually an hypothesis, not a working theory. That said, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to get our kids outside and into the national parks more often.

Comments

Connie
When we started our family we began vacationing in the National Parks. It was something my husband had grown up doing and he introduced them me to as well. Couple that with being more affordable and suffice it to say, our kids have grown up vacationing in the NP's. We've never taken them to Disney World (not that there's anything wrong with folks who do!) but rather have introduced them to White Water Rafting, Hiking, Backpacking, Jeeping and so forth. As a result we are beginning to see them take their own kids- our granchildren, and share these wonderful places with them! Our son's favorite place is Yellowstone, the thermal features are what appeal to him. (He just finished his first semester in college and LOVED his geology course). Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns' recent PBS special on the National Parks struck a chord with our family when they talked about sharing these experiences with our children and passing the mantle of preservation to the next generation to love and cherish these special places like we have!

Connie, your children and grandchildren can count themselves very fortunate to have been introduced to the national parks in such an exciting (and loving) way. Let's hope that parents throughout America will continue to regard first-hand exposure to the national parks as a very worthwhile aspect of child-rearing. It's never to late to get started. My own exposure to national parks was practically nil before I reached adulthood.

Good article! What alarms me the most about the younger generation is...how inactive they are when it comes to personal physical fittest. The huge obesity problem in this country among are younger generation is most likely going to produce future patients for the intensive care unit in are local hospitals. Parents with fat kids, the lack of proper diet and with the lack of a well balance exercise programs is not going help build there interests in participating in the great outdoors. It all starts at home and away from the slouch video computer games with a cheap bag of potato chips in one hand. What in the hell ever happen to this nations health and physical educational programs for the kids. Where in the the hell are the parents? I guess they might be stuffing their poor kids with a fast jiffy burger while gaining well over 100 pounds. I see this is now a major problem for the military - fat kids lingering into young adulthood with major health problem and later becoming totally unfit to serve in are arm forces. A very sad state of affairs in this country.