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Children Prefer Faraway Wildlife to Local Nature

bumblebee hovers near flower
Photo credit: Michelle Jewell, NC State University

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Michelle Jewell, chief science communicator for NC State’s Department of Applied Ecology.

If a tree is in the forest and no one has posted a picture of it online, does it exist at all? Today’s children are likely to answer no.

Children now spend a majority of time indoors engaged with virtual experiences, and a collaborative study published in the journal PeerJ suggests that this may impact their attitudes toward local wildlife. The study surveyed 2,759 children in grades 4 to 8 across North Carolina as part of a broader project to engage children directly in science and nature through citizen science. Children were asked to list four animals they liked and four they feared, and then were asked to choose five animals they liked the most from a list of 20.

Generally, children thought more favorably of faraway charismatic species, such as pandas and cheetahs, than local ones. Also, local species were rated “scary” more often than distant ones.

The study also examined whether a child’s attitudes regarding nature were influenced by where the child lived. The researchers used urbanization as a proxy for a child’s access to local wildlife, predicting that rural and exurban children – who live near natural spaces – would be more likely to favor local wildlife than their urban peers. However, they found that all children, regardless of their neighborhood, were equally disconnected from local wildlife.

“We imagined that children living alongside nature would have a greater fondness for nature. But we saw no such effect,” says Rob Dunn, a professor in NC State’s Department of Applied Ecology who co-authored the study. “The level of disconnection from nature seemed independent of where children lived.”

It’s not clear what the long-term effects will be of this disconnect between children and the natural world. However, there are plenty of tried-and-true techniques to increase youth connections and knowledge of local wildlife – including citizen science projects, hunting, fishing, and nature-based educational programs.

The paper, “Children’s attitudes towards animals are similar across suburban, exurban, and rural areas,” was published in PeerJ July 23. First author of the paper is Stephanie Schuttler of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The paper was co-authored by Kathryn Stevenson, an assistant professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State, and Roland Kays, a zoologist with NC State and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. The work was done with support from the National Science Foundation, under grant number 1319293.