The absence of wildlife from children’s lives

melson animal

[…] Developmentalists are just beginning to consider the importance of wilderness and “wildness” in children’s lives. This theoretical and empirical neglect of the “wild” is surprising, for a number of reasons. First, a contextual, systemic approach to the study of children’s development (Fogel, et al., 2008; Melson, 2008) is now widely accepted. Since the publication of Bronfenbrenner’s groundbreaking classic, The ecology of human development (1979), study of child development in context–often called “the ecological systems approach” – has emerged as the dominant paradigm. This approach mandates careful attention to all elements – physical, social, emotional – of a child’s context. Second, it is evident that the contexts of development include many non-human life forms, including animals. Third, beyond animal presence, children’s interest in and involvement with other animal species (Melson, 2001), with non-animal life forms, such as plants, and with natural environments are now well documented. This responsiveness to nature is consistent with the biophilia hypothesis (Wilson, 1984; Kellert & Wilson, 1993; Kellert, 1997), which argues that since humans co-evolved with other animals and life forms, humans are innately attuned to them and to aspects of natural settings associated with survival (e.g., savannah-like vistas affording shelter and visual inspection of the surroundings).

Nevertheless, children’s interest in, ideas about, and engagement with wild animals has been largely ignored. One may speculate that this void is an adaptation to the widespread view that wild animals have been disappearing from the contexts of development for children in both industrialized and developing countries. If children’s engagement with wild animals is perceived to be of historical interest only, its relevance to contemporary child development can be easily discounted. Further, in a process Kahn (1999) calls “environmental generational amnesia,” people may take the natural environment they experience in childhood as the norm against which to measure later environmental changes. Thus, this process leads even scholars of child development to view the absence of the wild and wild animals in particular, from children’s lives as the norm, and not as evidence of an already impoverished context. Finally, the supposed disappearance of the wild (along with the dwindling number of children who have direct contact with domestic farm animals) has thrown children’s relationships with companion animals into sharper relief. As a result, pets have been singled out for study as the only animals that share children’s daily lives. While the developmental, educational and therapeutic significance of the child-pet relationship is now well established (Melson, 2001; Fine, 2006), narrow focus on the importance of pets has led to a tendency to conflate child-animal interactions with child-pet interactions. In this way, dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, fish and turtles – the most common species kept as pets – have become, in the words of Paul Shepard (1995), “the Others,” ambassadors of the wild animal species no longer present. […]

Source: Gail F. Melson (2013). “Children and wild animals”. In P. H. Kahn, Jr., Hasbach, P., & Ruckert, J. (eds), The rediscovery of the wild. MIT Press, Cambridge: MA.

Source of article photograph: The New York Times