Why Don’t Children’s Picture Books Depict Nature?

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

From Miller-McCune:

“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?

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Photo Credit: BigBoy G

127 comments

Emefa Dekonor
Emefa Dekonor3 years ago

We need to involve our children to have quiet introspective times within nature and to draw whatever experiences they have afterwards, who knows, this may in turn "plant the seed" for another generation to return to our "roots"

Thank you for this article.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

I LOVED animal books as a child. i was 8 when we went to the Natural Science Museum and all I wanted from the store was a book of endangered species... even though our limit was $5 and the book was $10, my dad bought it for me. I guess bc next to my brothers toys it was more noble? I plunged into that book, and wanted to be a vet up through high school. I used to walk through the woods and draw the things I found interesting, or write about it. I hope my son has the same enthusiasm

vee s.
vee s.4 years ago

Heather - without nature we wouldn't just be unhappy, we would all be dead !!

Heather M.
Heather Marv4 years ago

As a child I remember a book my mother brought for me about animals. She started a curiosity in me that has not faded and continues and I am fifty eight years young. When I brought my babies home from hospital I took them out into the garden to show them nature and now as a Grandmother I love teaching the Grandchildren about animals and nature and they love to learn. Imagine a World without nature...terrible, empty, a concrete jungle and nobody would be happy. To go for a walk in nature is so invigorating and brings peace and contentment. Bring back the books about nature and watch the childrens eyes light up.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim4 years ago

Picture books are important for children. It's what they look at before they can even read. It's sad to hear that nature and animals are decreasing in these books. :(

vee s.
vee s.4 years ago

Here in the UK many schools have arrangements for children to tend their own gardens, growing veg and flowers. Many schools have wildlife areas. There are visits to organic farms. There is also an increase in "green" classrooms - lessons spent in the open air, in woodland and so forth. Difficult in built up areas but that its where it is most important. We HAVE to get over the message that we are a part of nature not apart from it. Children's curiosity must be nurtured and developed in this crucial area - but it needs teachers who can do this.

Charlene Rush
Charlene Rush4 years ago

I doubt that the word 'nature' is even describable to most children, today.

Colleen Wright
Colleen W.4 years ago

Well, I don't have any children, but if this is true, it says a lot about the people who are writing these books and also the publishers!

Rooibos Bird
IE Ries4 years ago

Great study, very useful and very telling. The urbanizationists seem to want all children to think that "nature" doesn't exist so that it will make it easy for them to destroy the remnants without protest from succeeding generations. It's that what this is all about?? If children stay inside the house and play computer games and have stories read to them that take place in cities with no greenspace or wildlife, how will they form a connection to the natural world? And most importantly, if there's no connection, will they say much to protect it? My guess is now.

Jessica Nielsen
Jessica Nielsen4 years ago

The problem is, it's always princess and pretty makeup and dresses. BLECH. :D