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Experiences And Role Models In Nature Sociology Essay

Tanner (1980) tried to identify significant life experiences in conservation activists and leaders, and stated that ‘youthful experience of outdoors and relatively pristine environments emerges as a dominant influence in these lives’ (p. 23). The three participants in this study remember vividly childhood experiences where they formed bonds with the natural environment. For Charlene the time spent in her grandparents’ farm that was visited regularly in the course of growing up was a very important memory.

I have many memories of this time, such as when I tried to get on my grandfather’s mare and she threw me off. My siblings and I spent our childhood running in the fields picking capers and flowers, and looking for snails. This was the best time of my life and it will not come back. These things have sort of ended nowadays. I wish I had the time to relive those moments. (Charlene: 15-20)

Even for Christian being in the family fields when he was a child, was something that he thought was important in shaping his love for nature.

My father has fields in Marsaxlokk, and ever since I was a small boy, I used to spend time in my father’s fields, playing. It was a very happy time in my life. (Christian: 1-2)

Mary’s family did not own fields but they still lived in an area close to fields and her childhood play was surrounded by these fields.

When I was a child, I used to live with my family in Xgħajra. There was a really big field in front of our house and the whole area was very rural, with passageways that lead to the sea. When I looked out at a distance I could see the sea. My brother and I used to spend a lot of time playing outside and in the fields. My brother was always a little bit more naughty and daring than me, and he used to jump over rubble walls. [...] This contact with nature when I was a child was very important in shaping who I am today, it was a very happy childhood and I look back on it with nostalgia. (Mary: 1-14)

It seems experiences of engagement with the natural environment during childhood, cling on to the individual shaping his or her subsequent environmental path. One cannot help but notice that all three experiences are formed around rural areas rather than ‘wild’ natural areas. It seems that rural areas were more accessible to these young people when they were children.

We only love what we know through intimate association. Regular engagement with the natural environment allows children to form this intimate association with it and thus encourages them to grow to love nature (White and Stoecklin, 2008). Pro-environmental values are fostered by regular positive experiences in nature (Chawla, 2007). Other researchers have noted that significant life experiences in natural settings are important in developing positive perceptions of the nature, positive environmental attitudes and more importantly, environmental action (Bögeholz, 2006; Palmer, 1993). Wells and Lekies (2006) found that experiences in the natural environment before the age of eleven was best predictor of adult environmental behaviour. According to their study, even though domesticated nature activities like caring for plants and gardens also foster pro-environmental attitudes, their effects aren’t as strong as participating in ‘wild’ nature activities such as camping, playing in the woods, and hiking.

The study by Wells and Lekies (2006) though did not take into consideration experiences that happened after childhood, whereas adolescent, youth and adult experiences might also be important in instilling a love for the natural environment. Christian also remembers with nostalgia not only his childhood carefree days in nature but also his teenage years with his friends.

I live in Fgura, in front of the only agricultural fields left, and I think that this has allowed me to appreciate nature and the environment a little bit more. When I was a teenager, my friends and I, used to play in the fields in front of my house. Every Saturday morning we used to go and spend whole days running in the fields. (Christian: 56-60)

Also, Charlene speaks enthusiastically about her experiences with nature when she was researching for her dissertation.

It was a really fantastic experience that I would definitely try again. I was in contact with animals, milking sheep and collecting eggs. I held a chicken with my hands and for me, touching an animal is already a valuable experience in itself. My boyfriend came with me and he participated in things that he had never imagined that he would do, not even in his wildest dreams. I did not think that he would be such a sport, being from an urban city and lacking any contact with nature. But he definitely enjoyed it. It was literally a wow experience, even my boyfriend agrees, and that is saying something. (Charlene: 163-171)

The intrinsic value of nature is held in its beauty and diversity. Thus the experience of the nature’s beauty leads people to regard nature with respect and reverence, because it helps them to realise that nature has an intrinsic value. In this experience Christian appreciates the fact that he has had the opportunity to travel and experience living in nature, something that is very difficult to do in Malta. He appreciated this experience because nature has a value for him.

Then, in September 2007, I went to a youth exchange in Romania on Green Therapy! The programme was conducted in nature all the time and the feel of it was so intense. We even climbed a mountain. (Christian: 165-167)

For Mary, the feel of nature also instils in her an experience of freedom.

I remember that I really used to enjoy the fact that I was often outside and not enclosed at home. I really loved the open space and the sense of freedom that it gives you. Today as an adult, the sense of carefree days may not happen so often, although the sense of freedom is still with me, and thus I tend to appreciate such opportunities much more. (Mary: 7-12)

Ironically we live in a time in which many people experience nature virtually though online information or nature documentaries rather than direct physical contact. Some of my students excitedly tell me about Discovery Channel documentaries that they would have watched on animals in rainforests or savannahs, but when we discuss local flora and fauna, they just stare back at me with blank faces. Pergams and Zaradic (2006) reported a significant relationship between a steady annual decline in visitation to National Parks and an increase in virtual entertainment such as playing video games and surfing the internet. They suggested that in childhood, outdoor activities are in fact being replaced by such virtual activities. A study of primary schoolchildren in the UK revealed that children aged eight and over were better at identifying characters from Poke´mon (a card-trading game) than familiar organisms such as a beetle (Balmford et al., 2002). Children are disconnected from the natural environment. This disconnection was termed ‘nature-deficit disorder’ by Louv (2005). Most children and youth today live in urban areas and have little direct experience of the natural outdoors as a part of their daily lives. Instead they are surrounded by an artificial environment. This was duly noted by Charlene.

I think there should also be more recreational areas where children can play and be in contact with nature rather than having artificial playgrounds with plastic floors, and plastic houses and plastic everything. If people have more opportunities to enjoy the natural environment, then they will start caring more. (Charlene: 323-327)

Many children are shuttled from school to catechism lessons to football coaching to dance and drama class to piano lessons, and their little free time is then spent in front of the TV or computer screen. With all the good intentions on the part of parents, most children today are being given a hectic, artificial, virtual and electronic experience of childhood.

Today’s children cannot appreciate these things. My younger siblings did not experience this, as there is quite a gap between my sister and I, and the twins. When the twins where young, my mother had to go to work, something that she did not have to do when I was a child. So she had much more time to spend with my sister and I, and we often spent that time outside, near the beach, or in the countryside. [...] Sometimes though, I actually feel sorry for them as their childhood was much less fun compared to mine. They spend most of their free time playing on the computer or watching television. (Charlene: 61-70)

If studies show that almost all environmentalists had significant childhood experience in nature, and if such experiences are now lacking in the lives of children, where will future environmentalists come from? Some schools are doing an amazing job in trying to instil environmental values in school children, especially with the introduction of the EkoSkola programme (the Maltese version of the Eco-Schools international programme) in a number of schools, but maybe the type EE that’s really needed goes beyond the school gate. The problem with most current EE programmes is that they try to feed knowledge and demand responsibility and action before children have been allowed to develop an intimate relationship and connection with the natural world (Sobel, 2008). We need to offer the opportunity for children to develop a love for the natural environment, before we teach them about it in the classroom and encourage them to protect it (White and Stoecklin, 2008). People care about what they know, what they have a relationship with. In the past, Maltese children could experience EE on weekends and after school with their family or friends, in the fields or in natural areas like Buskett and Wardija. Nowadays, this time seems to have been taken up by other activities. We do not seem to have time for being in nature any more. 

On winter Sundays, up till the age of about fourteen, I used to go hiking and camping with my family in nature. We often used to go to Buskett or Chadwick Lakes for our Sunday outing, or to other places in the countryside. It was a very relaxing time spent with my family. We used to play games such as hide and seek. [...] Sometimes we used to go as a whole family with aunties, uncles and cousins. We used to go to Kennedy Grove, riding bicycles, running, and playing. These were memorable times in my life and I really treasure them. These were also times that bonded us closer together as a family. (Charlene: 44-61)

There is huge potential for parents to both instil this love of nature in their children and spend valuable time with them. Parents can easily be that enthusiastic adult who can kindle an interest in nature (Cleary, 2007). Positive direct experiences in nature with someone close to the child such as a parent or grandparent, contribute strongly to pro-environmental action in adulthood (Chawla, 2006). Such experiences stimulate a love for nature, which leads to a genuine interest in environmental knowledge that is provided in more structured EE programmes such as in schools, and to eventually take action for the environment (Chawla, 1998; 2006; Kals et al., 1999; Palmer, 1993; Schultz, 2000; Sobel, 2008; Wells and Lekies, 2006; White and Stoecklin, 2008).

Young children also have a natural affinity for animals (Sobel, 1996). Animals are an endless source of wonder and curiosity for children. Taking care of animals at home can also help to foster a caring attitude and sense of responsibility towards living things.

We always had pets at home, either a cat or a dog or anything really. We really loved them, as a family. [...] A pet teaches you how to care for something living. It takes a lot of care and patience to have a pet at home. Especially if you have a dog, you need to feed him, play with him, and take him out for walks. I was always interested in animals. (Mary: 29-39)

Having a direct contact with nature, allows you to appreciate it more. There are children that have never seen live animals. I have always been in contact with animals, and it must be the reason why I love them so much. (Charlene: 81-83)

Animals and children seem to have a close connection, and in fact studies of small children’s dreams reveal that about 90% of their dreams are about animals (Patterson, 2000). Children have the ability to interact with animals in an instinctive way. They often talk to them as if talking to a friend and invest in them emotionally.

I remember in our garden we had an insect pupa once and it fascinated me so much that I used to go and observe it and keep an eye on it. Until one day it wasn’t there anymore. It vanished. I realised that obviously it had turned into a butterfly. Even though I knew that, I was still very much in awe of it all. (Mary: 39-43)

According to (Trittin, 2009) the experience of nature is also an important motivation for people when they involve themselves in the environmental political sphere. This experience does not have to be positive, but negative experiences can also instigate political actions. For example, environmental activists often mention the development of their childhood place and the feelings of loss associated with such development as a reason for their activism (Shaw, 2000). This is certainly the experience of Christian.

Through time, I have watched a lot of fields in Fgura being destroyed. This has pained me and in fact I have become part of a committee within the Fgura local council with the aim of conserving Wied Blandun which is a valley of ecological importance. (Christian: 62-65)

4.2.2 Role Models

According to social learning theory, behaviours can be learned through the observation of others, who are referred to as ‘models’ (Bandura, 1977). When environmentalists are asked the reasons for their commitment, they give two answers more often than any other: special places in nature where they played as a child or adolescent and family role models who showed the value of the natural world through their own valuing of it (Chawla, 1999; 2007). In a study of a group of people who had started grass-roots community organisations the influence of one or both parents was often spontaneously mentioned (Berkowitz, 1987). Children need to see their parents respecting and loving the environment in order to develop that same respect and love themselves. The participants in this study also had or still have a beloved family member that exposed them to plants and animals and taught them to appreciate life in all its forms. Charlene’s father has always been a lover of nature and she realises that his attitude towards it was important in shaping her attitudes and values towards the environment. She realises this so much that she feels that her efforts in environmental work are partly dedicated to him.

I would like to think that I have inherited my father’s character. He is a lover of nature. Every spare time that he has, he goes out somewhere where there is some greenery. He has always filled our home with life, building a greenhouse, having pets and other animals. I think that he has influenced me a lot and my efforts to improve the local environment, would be worth it, even if they were just for him. (Charlene: 96-101)

Through what they attend to with care or fascination, parents indicate to their children what has value. Mary’s parents are keen gardeners and through gardening they have influenced Mary’s perception of the natural environment.

My parents are really into gardening, and we had quite a big garden with trees. They actually also extended it, to have more space for trees. They have all kinds of plants at home. I was always surrounded with plant life and learnt a lot about nature through them. I am not really knowledgeable about plants and plant life and I really wish that I knew more. I really admire people who are really into nature and know the names of plants and where they grow and their characteristics. I really enjoy listening to explanations about plants and how they grow. I am always eager to know more and more about these things. [...] My mum also used to listen to a lot of radio programmes about growing plants so these were always at the background and I guess I was subconsciously listening to them as well. It is later on in life that you realise that these things leave an impact on you, even though they do not seem so important at the time. (Mary: 84-99)

People around a child, especially parents help to foster a bond with nature by their own example. What they need to do, it appears, is to set an example of noticing nature in an appreciative way, and demonstrate a caring attitude towards it. By the direction and quality of their attention and care, they communicate nature’s value and thus promote the child’s interest and care towards it (Chawla, 2007). Apart from giving a sense of value to nature through showing so much care for plants, Mary’s mother tried to teach Mary that insects are an important part of nature and that they are not scary. Mary sees her mother’s efforts as important in shaping her perception of the environment.

I am really afraid of insects, and my mum often used to send me cutting fresh herbs from the garden for cooking. I used to be really afraid, having to pass through so much vegetation, always with the fear that an insect was going to fly on me. Later on, I discovered that mum used to send me cutting herbs on purpose, to reduce my fear of insects. I think that the family’s attitude towards nature and the environment, in one’s upbringing are very important to shape one’s values. I was always surrounded by a love for nature and living things. Maybe that is why I have grown up with this same love. (Mary: 101-108)

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