Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences to Adult Environmentalism

Wells, Nancy M. and Kristi S. Lekies


This paper examines connections between childhood involvement with the natural environment and adult environmentalism from a life course perspective. Approximately 2,000 adults age 18-90 living in urban areas throughout the United States were interviewed with respect to their childhood nature experiences and their current, adult attitudes and behaviors relating to the environment. Model testing and cross-validation procedures using structural equation modeling suggest that childhood participation with nature may set an individual on a trajectory toward adult environmentalism. Specifically, childhood participation in "wild" nature such as hiking or playing in the woods, camping, and hunting or fishing, as well as participation with "domesticated" nature such as picking flowers or produce, planting trees or seeds, and caring for plants in childhood have a positive relationship to adult environmental attitudes. "Wild nature" participation is also positively associated with environmental behaviors while "domesticated nature" experiences are marginally related to environmental behaviors.


"The results of this study indicate that participation with "wild nature" in childhood such as walking, playing or hiking in natural areas; camping; or hunting or fishing has a significant, positive association with both adult environmental attitudes and behaviors. People who engaged in these kinds of activities before the age of 11 were more likely as adults to express pro-environment attitudes and to indicate that they engaged in pro-environment behaviors. In addition, participation with "domesticated" nature during childhood such as harvesting flowers or vegetables, planting trees or seeds, and caring for indoor or outdoor plants, is also positively associated with environmental attitudes, although only marginally associated with environmental behaviors. Also, as predicted, adult environmental attitudes partially mediates the relationship between childhood participation with nature and adult environmental behaviors" (p. 13).

Pedagogical Area
  • place-based education, environment as integrating context (EIC)
Outcome Area
  • environmental knowledge, attitude and awareness
  • stewardship behavior
  • environmental change
Participant Area
  • community
Age Area
  • adult