by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
The box office success of The Lorax, with an environmental message delivered by a hairy orange tree advocate, has renewed interest in the classic 1971 Dr. Seuss book of the same name.
With any luck, The Lorax might give a big boost to other children’s books that promote a love of nature and the outdoors.
A new study in the journal Sociological Inquiry found that if picture books are any indication, children are increasingly isolated from nature. Researchers analyzed the pictures in 296 Caldecott Medal winning books from 1938 to 2008.
Pictures are critical, since the prestigious Caldecott Medal awards go to children’s books with the best illustrations. Caldecott books have strong sales and prominent placements in schools and libraries, meaning winners can have a huge influence on young readers.
The study found that before 1960, illustrations of the natural world and the man-made world were about equal. But Caldecott Medal winners after 1960 were twice as likely to show indoor, man-made environments.
“These findings suggest that today’s generation of children is not being socialized, at least through this source, toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it,” according to the study’s authors.
Is art imitating life, life imitating art – or a bit of both? Doesn’t it seem natural that if a child’s imagination is filled with trees, birds, mountains, valleys, bugs, flowers, animals, sun, rain, snow, moon and stars, that child is more likely to grow up to love the outdoors and care about the environment?
Richard Louv, author of the 2005 Last Child in the Woods, coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the affliction of kids who spent too much time glued to TV and computer screens.
How about getting our kids off to a running start (running through the woods and fields, of course) by introducing them to books that fire their imaginations and inspire a sense of wonder about the natural world?
Here are a few suggestions:
Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (the 1964 Caldicott winner) are both classics in which there’s no separation between humans and animals. It’s completely natural for Christopher Robin to wander through the Hundred Acre Wood with Pooh and Piglet, or for Max to become king of the wild forest and sea of his imagination.
The charming Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey was a Caldecott Award winner in 1942. Other Caldecott winners include The Rooster Crows (1946), Song of the Swallows (1950), Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears (1976), The Polar Express (1986), Owl Moon (1988), and My Friend Rabbit (2003) and Flotsam (2007).
It’s not only picture books but stories as well that mesmerize and fire imaginations. Misty of Chincoteague, for example, has inspired many a family to visit Chincoteatue Island, Va., to watch the wild ponies wandering along the beaches. And no one who reads Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little will ever view spiders, pigs and mice the same way again!
There are far too many children’s books about nature to list – some old, some new. Parent & Child magazine recently released a list of 100 greatest books for children, including many about nature, animals and the outdoors – see it at www.scholastic.com/100books. For more recommendations, visit your local library or bookstore.
Read a nature book to a child today, and nurture a new generation that will care about the Earth and its creatures! As that Dr. Seuss says in The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
For more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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