Past research has shown that adults prefer natural scenes to urban ones, but it’s been unclear whether that preference is inherent, or if people learn it through experience.

To help answer that question, a team of University of Chicago psychologists surveyed the 239 children aged 4 to 11.

The researchers found that those children preferred urban environments much more than the 167 adult participants. However, preferences for urban environments were significantly lower among older children—suggesting that an affinity for nature may develop gradually in life, rather than being inherent at a young age.

“…EXPOSING CHILDREN TO NATURAL EXPERIENCES EARLY IN LIFE MAY BE CRITICAL FOR THEM TO DEVELOP AN APPRECIATION FOR NATURE LATER IN LIFE.”

“We hypothesized that the kids would prefer nature because adults overwhelmingly do,” says University of Chicago doctoral student Kim Lewis Meidenbauer, lead author of the study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. “We were incredibly surprised to find evidence to the contrary.”

Image: Journal of Environmental Psychology

Recruiting participants at a local museum, she and her coauthors interviewed more than 90 children from Chicago and other parts of Illinois, more than 100 from other states, and 11 from other English-speaking countries. They sought to have at least 20 children of each age group, and also analyzed a subset of their sample that excluded siblings.

The researchers used images that were equated in visual appeal, so as to account for aesthetic preferences unrelated to natural or urban environments. They also found that children’s preferences were not related to the amount of time they spent outdoors in natural environments.

“It is important to note that our results do not mean that nature is not good for children,” says Marc Berman, the study’s senior author and an associate professor in the psychology department. “Plenty of studies on nature interactions, including many from our laboratory, show that cognitive, social, and health benefits in adults are not driven by preferences or improvements in mood. So, it doesn’t seem like the cognitive benefits of nature exposure are all about liking nature or some kind of hedonic response.

“This work also suggests that fondness for nature is not a given in childhood. Therefore, exposing children to natural experiences early in life may be critical for them to develop an appreciation for nature later in life.”

As director of the Environmental Neuroscience Lab, Berman is a leading expert on the relationship between environmental factors and individual neural processing. His previous research has helped shape scholarly understanding of how nature can impact cognitive performance—even when experienced through videos and sounds.

The researchers have not yet identified an obvious cause for why children’s preferences counter those of adults. One theory is that the children are influenced by their parents, and that those influences may take time to manifest. That idea is bolstered by the researchers’ data, which show that older children’s preferences increasingly mirrored those of their parents.

The psychologists hope to continue investigating whether there are other mechanisms at play, and if adults and children weigh environmental preferences to different degrees. They also hope to conduct similar research on the preferences of adolescents.

“Our study also found evidence for the cognitive benefits of nature exposure in kids, and it was entirely unrelated to preference,” Meidenbauer says. “This is important because it really suggests that kids don’t need to like nature for it to be good for them.”