The Right to a Nature-Rich Childhood


The Declaration of Human Rights demands the right to participate in the cultural life of the community. Our children’s cultural life participation is only truly granted if non-human plants and animals are included as an integral part of that living community.

Essentially-universal “standards of living” among civil societies hold that a human child has the right to adequate nutrients in their diet; to enough clean drinking water to maintain their bodies for health and for growth; to clean air to breathe; to sufficient shelter to protect them from the elements; and to freedom from threat of violence or abuse.

No rational, moral person would withhold these needed things from a child. We are committed to humane  and nurturing care so a child has the opportunity to grow up to become a physically, mentally and emotionally complete human.  

And yet, even with the preponderance of evidence to support the essential need for and health benefit of outdoor play and exploration, our children’s right of access to the non-human living world has been grievously neglected or prevented.

It may strike you as trivial–this need for nature-connection– in a world where so many more heinous crimes are committed against children every day and on a terrible scale. But the importance of this less-apparent nutrient in a child’s life is becoming more alarming as we watch more and more of our children and young adults grow up with no relationship at all with their natural surroundings.

They build no memories or skills there; they tell no stories from creeks or stick-forts or climbing trees; they grow up denatured and eco-apathetic.

Consequences of this neglect visit not only the individual children we love today. The aggregate blind eye to the natural world from which we draw our material and spiritual and cultural sustenance has already produced a legacy of rights denied.

Purposefully and consistently granting this childhood right from birth to know and grow in nature may nurture in that little one a passion to protect that world–a world to which they know they belong–when they grow up. They will more likely be stewards and conservators of the clean water, clean air, natural places and intact communities that were a part of their healthy childhood “bio-cultural life.”

So perhaps you are in agreement that a child’s right to nature has merit. But maybe also, without realizing and in subtle ways as a teacher, parent, grandparent, older sibling, you impede or neglect to foster this important relationship in a child’s life. How might that be?

Sadly, our society and culture has, by design or neglect, not assured our children’s rights to play, explore and imagine in a natural environment:  

  • By the way we control their time in school–no outdoor recess, little time for imagination or mind-wandering; by little or no quiet time during the school day 
  • By supplanting unstructured outdoor free play with competitive, organized high-expectation team sports. 
  • By exposing them over their childhoods to hundreds of hours of media marketing that teaches them they must have stuff and it must be new and it must make noise and show motion and stimulate their pleasure centers. They come to think that it is only possible to be enthralled  in a sense of flow when batteries or electrical outlets are nearby. 
  • By designing neighborhoods without sidewalks, front porches, or wild unimproved places;  by homeowner association rules that discourage free play  
  • By adult indifference to the natural world, or fear of it; by our focus on monitors of all kinds. Where we find our center of importance, our children will follow. 
  • By our excessive sheltering of children from the kinds of minor injuries we all survived as kids, the bruises that are merit badges of new abilities to run, jump and climb. By our excessive adult fears for safety from exposure to bad people. 
  • By separating our children from the sources of the food they eat, from the soil. Gardening–even in pots on the patio–begin to reduce that divide. 
  • By our society’s reduced appetite for reading as entertainment–reading outdoors and the use of imagination and the opportunity for discovery outdoors. 
  • By the disappearance of nature references from children’s literature.
  • By our failure to protect natural places and species from destruction everywhere, but especially adjacent to urban areas where more and more people will live. Loss of biodiversity means a naturally-impoverished future for our kids and grandkids. Our children have a right to a biodiverse tomorrow with resilient ecosystems in balance between the needs of humankind and the needs of other kind. 

Let’s agree to make our children’s right to live in or have access to nature as important as their right to adequate calories and nutrients in their diet.  

Then daily, we allow and encourage them to eat.

This post is one of many for Blog Action Day where the common focus is Human Rights. 

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Will send this to Karl and Jane Bren. They enjoyed meeting you and this perfectly describes how they’ve taught their grandchildren.

  2. Good job, Fred. Of minor note, your link to the lack of nature in children’s literature didn’t take me there. It isn’t surprising that stories about modern kids would not be set in nature, as so few kids spend any time outdoors, but it is a sad fact that I hadn’t been made aware of before. My favorite childhood stories were about outdoor experiences, so it makes me sad to realize that genre is no more.

  3. Fred, I couldn’t agree with you more. However, it does take a certain amount of money to be able to provide a child with some of those things: neighborhoods with natural environments, whole foods, etc. Unfortunately not every family can provide such things.

  4. Joy (Joyfully Green) just told me about this blog, and I’m glad she did! 🙂

    Great article. Two summers ago, we lived aboard a sailboat for 91 days, and I remember how calming and organizing it was for my then-5-year old to be such a part of her natural surroundings. I have to admit that we’re guilty of spending way too much time indoors, when we are living on land. (Another reason that we need to start living aboard full time, IMO…)