What’s happened to depictions of nature in children’s picture books?
A group of researchers led by University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist J. Allen Williams Jr. studied the winners of the American Library Association’s prestigious Caldecott Medal between 1938 (the year the prize was first awarded) through 2008. They looked at more than 8,000 images in the 296 volumes, and found decreasing depictions of nature and animals.
The results, published in the journal Sociological Inquiry, are sobering. “There have been significant declines in depictions of natural environments and animals, while built environments have become much more common,” the researchers report.
Specifically, they find images of built and natural environments were “almost equally likely to be present” in books published from the late 1930s through the 1960s. But in the mid-1970s, illustrations of the built environment started to increase in number, while there were fewer and fewer featuring the natural environment.
Natural Environments Have All But Disappeared
“This gap widened in every subsequent decade,” Williams and his colleagues write. “Natural environments have all but disappeared.”
In line with this trend, “from the 1960s onward, interactions with wild animals decline steadily.” More surprisingly, even cats and dogs don’t play the role they once did in these stories.
“The probability of a domestic animal serving as a subject declined sharply after 1938 into the 1980s,” the researchers write. “There was a slight rise after this, but the likelihood of finding domestic animal subjects in an image in the 2000s is less than half that of the early years in our study.”
Young Children Today Are Not Being Led To Appreciate Nature
Since illustrated books often play an important role in childhood socialization, this is disturbing news. These findings suggest that today’s generation of young children are not being led toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it, at least through books.
The American population is more concentrated in urban areas today than it was in 1938, so in one sense, it’s not surprising there are more images today of man-made environments and fewer of the natural world.
Is this part of the reason our kids spend so little time in nature these days? Of course, children don’t only read books that win the Caldecott Medal. But the researchers note that such award-winning volumes tend to sell well, circulate strongly at libraries, and “influence taste for children’s literature” as a whole.
Let’s Re-Connect Children With Nature
The movement to re-connect children with nature is beginning to take off, driven by the alarming childhood obesity rates in this country, as well as the fact that the average youngster spends almost eight hours a day staring at electronic screens.
And this research adds a further reason why this alienation from nature has happened. More than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities now, but nature is still all around and deserves to be present in our children’s picture books.
Without that, we’re missing an opportunity to teach young children about nature and their place in it. These children are the future stewards of our planet, so what will happen if they don’t care?
Photo Credit: BigBoy G