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Why Your Kids Are Forgetting About Nature

Inside one UW professor’s quest to cure environmental amnesia

Published on: January 12, 2018

Discovery Park. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Peter H. Kahn, Jr., is on a mission. The University of Washington professor wants to cure environmental generational amnesia.

Um, what’s that again?

As kids, we form a picture of what “environmentally normal” means, says Kahn. It’s what we call up when we think of “the environment.” But each new generation gets a worse picture of their environment because of environmental degradation. That degraded condition becomes the “new normal” and skews our perceptions of the natural world. In a sense, we lose our memory of what the world once was —  hence the term “environmental generational amnesia.”

Environmental generational amnesia refers to the fact that we lose more knowledge with each generation, says Kahn, who is also director of the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems Lab. Each new generation doesn’t have the knowledge of what they’ve lost, a slide that Kahn says enables a relentless development of the natural world.

How do we counteract that slide? Get wild.

"Kids can learn cognitively why it’s important to save the natural world at school, but until they have experienced why being in natural settings is so great, they won’t know why it’s worth saving,” says Kahn. This means a daily walk is good, and walking in the most wild place nearby is even better. (An extra benefit: There’s plenty of research that shows getting outside is actually good for your health.)

If you find wild places you love together, you’ll want to return together.

Making getting outside a priority is even more important in our tech-focused world, says Kahn.

“Some say humans will adapt to technology and the shrinking of the wild world, but I look around and we are a diseased society,” Kahn says. Our history is outdoors, he explains. 

“Humans came of age in the wilderness; we’ve been going out into nature and coming back home for centuries,” he emphasizes. Ignoring or underestimating that history is also ignoring and underestimating the "architecture of our bodies and brains.”

As part of his research, Kahn is currently focused on Discovery Park. As the largest wild space in Seattle, the 534-acre city park is the perfect spot to counteract environmental amnesia because it’s a slightly more wild area than Seattle kids were born into, he says.

Kahn and his research assistants are currently collecting feedback from visitors to Discovery Park via an online survey, which he encourages anyone who’s been to Discovery Park (ages 18 or older) to complete. Kahn’s goal: Find patterns in the ways people experience nature.

“If someone interacts with an owl [or] sees a favorite tree, we can slice a pattern from that,” he says. “This survey can provide a depth and a richness that gives voice to how nature is being used and why it’s important for humans.”

Discovery Park is likely being used in ways that aren’t immediately obvious or appreciated. By collecting data about the park, Kahn hopes to answer why it’s ideal to keep the park in its current “wild” form rather than, say, develop it (the park’s been the focus of development for a long time, from a 1975 quest to build a golf course to a current proposal to create the Fort Lawton Center for the Arts).

Whether you’re at Discovery Park or simply spot a squirrel in your backyard, Kahn says it's important to make getting into nature a priority for your family.

“Be an example and leave your phone behind. Unplug the earphones, too,” he says. “If you just get out into the more wild areas, many of the interactions will take care of themselves [and] if you find wild places you love together, you’ll want to return together.” 

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