INVISIBLE INK: Is the Natural World Disappearing from Children's Books and Education?

About the Author

Herbert W. Broda is a professor of education at Ashland University in Ohio. He is the author of "Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning: Using the Outdoors as an Instructional Tool" and "Moving the Classroom Outdoors: Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning in Action." He is also a leader of the Children & Nature Network's Natural Teachers Initiative.

Recently, a teacher showed me the amazing wordless picture book, Window, written by Jeannie Baker. This powerful work depicts how a child’s view from his window gradually changes from lush natural landscape to a congested urban cityscape as he grows from infancy to adulthood. The book is a touching illustration of the transition from natural environments to built environments.

Interestingly, how natural and built environments are depicted in children’s literature is the topic of a recent study by five scholars led by J. Allen Williams, Jr. from the University of Nebraska (The Human-Environment Dialog in Award-winning Children’s Picture Books). The study examined changes in the pictures that have appeared in children’s books since 1938. The authors examined books that had won the prestigious Caldecott Award for distinguished children’s picture books.

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The study found that over the years there has been a significant decline in the depiction of natural environments (those that appeared relatively unchanged by humans) and a steady increase in the illustration of built environments (anything constructed by humans).

During the years analyzed there also has been a definite decrease in the number of pictures showing domestic or wild animals in children’s picture books.

Is that a concern? Absolutely! Picture books for children mirror the priorities and interests of society. In education we talk about the concept of the null curriculum—that which is taught because it is never mentioned. If children are seeing less and less of nature in what they read, the message being conveyed is that nature really isn’t an important part of day-to-day living.

The findings of the Nebraska study become even more relevant when we look at another reflector of society—the dictionary. The 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary created quite a stir when readers noticed several nature words like dandelion, acorn, heron, and willow had been dropped from the book. Of course, new words had been added—blog, broadband, voicemail and “cut and paste”. The nature words that were eliminated were evidently not viewed by the editorial staff as being a part of children’s typical experience.

Is that a problem? Absolutely! Dictionaries mirror the priorities and interests of society. Once again the null curriculum is at work.

When we no longer include words related to nature, there is always a very real risk that those omitted words will be considered unimportant or irrelevant to daily living.

Is nature playing an increasingly smaller role in today’s culture of learning? The Nebraska study and the Oxford Junior Dictionary certainly point to that possibility. There are other indicators, however.

Heavy emphasis on statewide testing sometimes resurrects that archaic notion that “real” learning needs to be a bit unpleasant and focused entirely upon indoor activities such as lecture, worksheets and heavy repetition. Please understand—I have no problem with indoor learning. I would plead, however, that these activities be augmented where appropriate with outdoor learning experiences that reinforce the concepts being stressed inside.

Recently a teacher shared with me that her school was located on a multi-acre tract of land that had a variety of habitats- woodland, open field, early succession, etc. The school was in walking distance of both a river and a state park. Teachers were well aware of the natural resources that they had, but were reluctant to go outside and utilize them. The reason—they felt a need to focus on learning objectives for state tests. Unfortunately the assumption had been made that utilizing a rich outdoor environment was at odds with learning academic concepts.

Thankfully an increasing body of research is showing that outdoor learning can be used very successfully to enhance student achievement.

Nature needs to be an integral part of our culture of learning. The outdoors is best seen both as a venue for learning, as well as a source of content. Stepping outside the classroom to reinforce a concept, or just to experience a needed change of pace and place, needs to be a part of a school’s culture. It needs to be the norm, not the occasional exception or reward. Students most certainly will not be interested in pictures of natural environments, or expect to find nature words in dictionaries, unless we provide a culture of learning that clearly values exploration of the natural world.

Herb Broda is a professor of education at Ashland University in Ohio. He is the author of “Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning: Using the Outdoors as an Instructional Tool” and “Moving the Classroom Outdoors: Schoolyard-Enhanced learning in Action.” Both are published by Stenhouse Publishers. He is a leader of the Children & Nature Network’s Natural Teachers initiative.

More resources:

C&NN’s Natural Teachers Network
Recent News from C&NN’s Natural Teachers Network
C&NN Report on Educators & Educational Settings, and other Research Reports
A March 30 2012 New York Times op-ed by Timothy Egan on Nature-Deficit Disorder.


  1. Thank you Herb, for your tireless effort in the encouragement and promotion of the use of the schoolyard and greater outdoors within the formal education community. Your constant enthusiasm and dedication has truely been an inspiration.

  2. Yes! Could not agree more. The achievement-obsession that keeps kids locked instead preparing for tests is not only harmful for their health, it doesn’t proffer any real academic benefits. I’ve heard that nationally 40% of schools (I think elementary) no longer have recess. Skyrocketing ADHD diagnoses of course not a surprise. Plus I think 25% of college students are on anti-depressants, if I have my figures correct. We are going in the wrong direction! Nature is good for us– for learning, for our souls, for our peace of mind. It is the best classroom. Not to say we can’t learn inside as well, as you say, you’re not against indoor learning at all, but there has to be a balance. Losing images of nature, losing the words in the dictionary — this is depressing — these are warning signs, and should be a wake up call to all of us.

  3. So true. I as a grandmother see the effects of kids losing their natural connection to their environment. I began working with my son at natures-classroom. Having kids in a natural environment, camping, sleeping under the stars, playing in a lake, rafting a river. This connection changes them. You see a difference in their demeanor, their smile is brighter, they are more kind, more spontaneous. I started working with my son because my grand kids were attending this camp, I have kept the fight for outdoor education, camping, nature awareness because of all our children and grandchildren because we need to know our connection to this Planet Earth. Thank you for your research.

  4. Thank you Herb for a wonderful post. This subject is very dear to my heart and agreed wholeheartedly with everything you said.
    When children and nature mix, something magical happens. Sadly today, many children spend very little time outdoors in the natural world. The very thought of children not being given the opportunity to play and learn in nature breaks my heart for we know that we all need nature in our lives to be happy and healthy. We also know Mother Nature needs us too. I am deeply passionate about reconnecting children with nature and reawakening the awe and wonder in those of us who have become lost. Through my nature based books and nature classes I hope to warm the hearts of children and help them to discover the “magic” our beautiful and enchanting Mother Earth gifts us each and every day.

    In my latest children’s picture book “Orange Moon – Grandmother Tree”, I incorporated several nature based activities at the back of the book to inspire outdoor paly.

    There is way too much pressure on young children today. I believe nature should be an integral part of all school learning.

    Here is a link to our outdoor nature classes in the forest :

    Having visited many schools over the last year, I have witnessed small but magical changes. Many of the schools have started their very own school gardens and try to take the class out at least once a week. Using the outdoor space doesn’t mean you have to travel, it can be as simple as investigating the school grounds or playing fields. For the schools that have no grounds as such, I try to encourage at least planting up a few herb pots and vegetable containers and every school should have at least a few sunflowers don’t you think!!! I also bring nature into the classroom. Bringing nature into the classroom is no substitute for learning outdoors but it does allow the children to touch, taste and learn a little more about the natural world.

    Although it is very clear we have a long way to go, I am full of hope and excited about the future knowing so many care and action is finally taking place all over the world. Thank you Herb.

  5. I have always agreed with your ideas of using the outdoors to enhance learning; however, there is no mistaking that the pressure is there for the teacher to stay in the classroom and pound away at the standards. I certainly felt it when I was teaching down in Baltimore.

    In undergrad, I remember a message repeated often was that education is a constantly swinging pendulum – the “correct” methodologies of today will be in direct contrast to the “best practices” of the next decade. Hopefully those new “best practices” will oust the current ways and allow teachers more breathing room to get the students outside!

  6. I came across your article via the Stenhouse site, and quoted it in a blogpost that I wrote this evening about exploring earthworms in my first grade classroom. Hopefully it will lead some back here to read the full article, and your books! Your message is crucial in this day of disappearing recess and outdoor time, and ever-growing state tests. Thank you, Herb!


  7. Thank you, Herb, for your promotion of keeping children connected with the outdoors. Having been a naturalist for over 15 years in Northeast Ohio, I have seen children from all walks of life – urban, suburban, and rural communities. There is a profound difference in the interest that they have in nature, depending on their exposure to the outdoors as young children. I raised my own children with a love and respect for nature and now, as a grandmother, am seeing the importance for this connection with my young grandchildren. I hope that we can continue to influence youth with our enthusiasm for nature and help them to gain respect for the natural world.



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