This research help fills a gap in the existing body of research on nature preferences, which has not closely examined children under 9 years old.
“It is important to note that our results do not mean that nature is not good for children,” said Marc Berman, the study’s senior author and an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. “Plenty of studies on nature interactions, including many from our laboratory, show that cognitive, social and health benefits in adults are not driven by preferences or improvements in mood. So, it doesn’t seem like the cognitive benefits of nature exposure are all about liking nature or some kind of hedonic response.
“This work also suggests that fondness for nature is not a given in childhood. Therefore, exposing children to natural experiences early in life may be critical for them to develop an appreciation for nature later in life.”
As director of the Environmental Neuroscience Lab, Berman is a leading expert on the relationship between environmental factors and individual neural processing. His previous research has helped shape scholarly understanding of how nature can impact cognitive performance—even when experienced through videos and sounds.
In addition to Meidenbauer and Berman, other co-authors on the study were former UChicago postdoctoral fellow Cecilia Stenfors, now at Stockholm University; Environmental Neuroscience Lab research technician Jaime Young, AM’17; Elliott Layden, PhD’19; UChicago doctoral student Kathryn Schertz and postdoctoral fellow Omid Kardan, PhD'19; and Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry.
The scholars have not yet identified an obvious cause for why children’s preferences counter those of adults. One theory is that the children are influenced by their parents, and that those influences may take time to manifest. That idea is bolstered by the researchers’ data, which show that older children’s preferences increasingly mirrored those of their parents.
The psychologists hope to continue investigating whether there are other mechanisms at play, and if adults and children weigh environmental preferences to different degrees. They also hope to conduct similar research on the preferences of adolescents.
“Our study also found evidence for the cognitive benefits of nature exposure in kids, and it was entirely unrelated to preference,” Meidenbauer said. “This is important because it really suggests that kids don’t need to like nature for it to be good for them.”
Citation: “The gradual development of the preference for natural environments,” Meidenbauer et al., Journal of Environmental Psychology, July 24, 2019. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2019.101328
Funding: TKF Foundation, John Templeton Foundation, National Science Foundation