Why Are Kids Afraid Of Nature?

Eww! Get that bug away from me!

Rangers at National Wildlife Refuges are discovering a new phenomenon this summer: young visitors are often scared of nature, whether it’s creepy crawlies, spiders, bats, snakes, or sometimes even ladybugs and fish.

Of course, it’s important to be careful around wildlife, and to treat animals with respect. In an area where grizzly bears, or alligators, are the star attraction, then we should have a natural fear of them, and they of us, and we humans need to follow the proper rules for how to behave around such wildlife.

But rangers have noticed that a fear of all nature is flourishing, both in children and adults.

“We’re seeing more kids sheltered and afraid,” says Ashley Inslee, a biologist at Bosque del Apache Refuge in New Mexico. “Even college kids interested in conservation haven’t been out hunting, fishing, hiking. They’ve seen TV shows or National Geographic and think being outdoors is cool, but it can be uncomfortable at first.”

Of course this makes sense: if a child’s experience of nature is watching Bear Grylls “Escape from Hell” in the jungles of Guatemala, or maybe studying the effects of global warming on the Internet, but she can’t remember the last time she explored some woods or a beach, then it’s not surprising that actually being out in nature comes as a bit of a shock.

Kids Consume Almost 11 Hours A Day Of Electronic Entertainment

We know that children spend increasingly longer amounts of time indoors, and on their electronic devices: a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time “media multitasking” (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into each day.

That was four years ago; I’m sure the number is much higher now. What time is left, then, for stepping outside to enjoy nature?

As the National Wildlife Refuge’s Susan Morse explains:

Some fears — sparked by active imaginations or fuzzy senses of geography — are fairly easy to dispel. Like worries about encountering zebras or lions at Tualatin River Refuge near Portland, Oregon, (neither are found there) or wolves and alligators at Great Swamp Refuge in New Jersey (where neither roam).

“Children are always nervous about alligators in the swamp,” says Dave Sagan, visitor services specialist at Great Swamp Refuge. “Once they find out that we do not have them this far north and I tell them there are no venomous snakes and that the scariest thing on the refuge is a plant with three leaves (poison ivy), many fears seem to go away.”

Like many teachers, I’ve seen this scared response to nature in my classroom. It only takes one teenage girl to scream when she sees a spider crawling in under the door to set a whole class off. It’s true that some students will do anything to avoid having to actually work; nevertheless, when I’ve talked this over with my students, it’s clear many of them just don’t spend any time outdoors.

Kids (And Parents) Need To Get Outside

Pop culture and myth sustain many nature fears. For instance, only in movies do bats drink human blood or purposefully fly in your face. So let’s get our kids off the couch and into nature, so they can find out the truth.

Not only do our youngsters deserve the opportunity to enjoy nature, they also need to do it on their own, instead of always being supervised. “Nature play areas“ are still a new idea in the U.S., but they are increasingly common in Europe: set-aside areas where kids can go off trail, climb trees, create sculptures from natural materials, play with water and mud, and indulge in all kinds of creative play, all with minimal adult supervision.

Whatever it takes, let’s get rid of the fear. The dangers of staying home, sitting all day staring at a screen while munching on corn chips and drinking soda, are far greater than getting off that couch and stepping outside!

Photo Credit: thinkstock


Christine Jones
Christine J2 years ago

We have some “nature play areas“ here in Australia and the kids love them and need them. We used to all have big backyards and I grew up with butterflies, bees, grasshoppers, flies, frogs, lizards, moths, praying mantises, dragonflies, you name it. Now gardens are treeless, paved and landscaped to within an inch of their lives. Gardens are getting tinier and tv screens are getting bigger.

One word of disagreement with the quoted expert. I'm not surprised that "Even college kids interested in conservation haven’t been out hunting, fishing, hiking". Hiking would be great, but I'd be very disappointed if any student who claimed to be interested in conservation enjoyed hunting and fishing.

Robin Pasholk
Robin Pasholk3 years ago

My generation had nature literally at our back doors in any city smaller than New York or Chicago. These days you can't even get that in the suburbs, what with the craze for "lawns" of only ONE kind of plant, no trees bigger than a fishing pole, and poisons for whatever the landscapers didn't put there. No wonder kids are scared of nature!

Maria Teresa Schollhorn

Thank you.

Ruhee B.
Ruhee B3 years ago

I spent lots of time outdoors and in "nature" but I'm still scared of big spiders and stinging wasps!!!

kathrynelizabet Etier

Part of that fear of nature is contributed by the content of shows and films kids watch while parked in front of a screen eating corn chips and drinking soda. A cheap plot device used frequently is the portrayal of natural elements as villains.

Janis K.
Janis K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Charles Barnard
Charles Barnard3 years ago

It's painfully obvious to me living in a college town that many kids have little or no experience with the outdoors. (Among other things, like thinking for themselves.)

Watch the college student in -20F weather wearing shorts, flip-flops and t-shirt running from their car/truck to and from stores--no thought that their car might fail them and they might have to walk.

Donnaa D.
donnaa D3 years ago


Catrin K.

A lot of the children today have never been camping and have never been to a farm , they have no clue about nature .

Alorha Breaw
Alorha Breaw3 years ago

I've been stung by a scorpion, have a deep scar from a spider bite, carry an epi pen because of allergies, had the crap scared out of me when discovering a nest of rattlesnakes, had poo from flying birds land in my hair, endless cuts, scrapes & bruises, and absolutely shudder at the possibility of encountering jelly fish, sea urchins or red ants BUT, I love it all! But I didn't learn the joys of nature until young adulthood & being on my own.My daughter was three weeks old the first time I took her camping. And through the years I so loved our snuggle & story time under a star filled sky after an amazing day of hiking, exploring, discovering.
11 hrs a day plugged into electronics is insanity in the making. So is teaching our children how to fill in bubbles on a test form rather then how to interact with the world around us. Use the fantastic tools we have to understand better but open the windows, step out the door.. life is waiting.