Stop Telling Kids “Don’t Touch!” in Nature and What to Say Instead

by Josée

TLDR: Jump to prompts for What to Say to Children Instead of “Don’t Touch” Nature.

Kids are losing touch with nature, quite literally. Kids spend less time outdoors, less time playing in fields and forests, less time picking flowers, and less time splashing in creeks. We could blame urbanization and the loss of wilderness. We could blame video games and screen time. We could blame a culture that overschedules and overstimulates children. And yes, all these things things definitely have an impact, but they are not the root cause. If we dig deeper, we will discover a far more nefarious reason. Children have become separated from the beauty and goodness of nature because of us.

Our culture holds this belief that nature is something other than us. We have divided ourselves from nature. This thinking can result in two extremes. On one end people believe that it is their right to dominate and exploit nature. On the other end people believe that nature should be untouchable. Both extremes are wrong, and both are responsible for the calamity of nature deficient children we see today.

Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.

Richard Louv

However, the one extreme that pushes children far from nature is the idea that nature should be untouchable and that kids (especially kids!) should not touch nature. “Look, Don’t Touch!” or “Take only memories. Leave only footprints.” Go to most national, provincial, state or even city parks and you will see signs with these messages. These saying have become so entrenched in our culture that they pervade outdoor education programs (for kids!) and motivate people to report children to a conservation officer for pond dipping (my kids – true story!).

Most people accept this message as sacrosanct. After all can you image what would happen if every child picked a dandelion from a park? The honeybees would starve! Or built a a fairy house in the forest? Complete pandemonium! What about made driftwood forts on the beach? A travesty! In fact, kids should keep their “grimy little” hands off nature otherwise they’ll ruin it for everyone else. My children have been on the receiving end of such remarks.

But is it true? If we give children an inch in nature will they destroy miles of it? No. It’s not children that are destroying nature. It’s adults. It’s big industry. It’s corporations. It’s greed. And if we don’t allow children to touch nature, and nature to touch children, we will be raising a whole new generation of adults that will continue to destroy nature.

When we view ourselves as a part of nature, we see the similarities between humans and nature. We are human beings; we are made of flesh and bone, of carbon and other elements, just like every other living thing on the planet. Biologically, we are no different from nature. All of the separation we experience, we have created. If we embrace our natural roots and an ecologically friendly outlook, we see that we can live and thrive in nature as other animals have. We would realize every one of our actions has a consequence and therefore act responsibly and respectfully toward nature.

Sarah Ashcraft-Johnson, Alexandra Mattingly, Alexander Papaioannou

Children Need Nature

It’s no secret. Children need time outside. It’s crucial for their health and development. Every year more studies are supporting these claims. Here are some of the more recent findings:

  • Exposure to nature helps children develop self-regulation.¹
  • Time outdoors prevents nearsightedness (myopia) in children.²
  • Biodiversity in nature can boost children’s immune systems³ and protect them from developing asthma.
  • Nature activities boosts children’s sense of well being.
  • Nature play promotes physical activity and cognitive development.
  • Contact with nature helps develop positive social behaviors in children.

If you are looking for more evidence or studies that support the importance of nature in child development head over to the Children Nature Network Research Library.

Also, if the idea of children need nature and time outside is new to you, you might want to consider reading on of these well known books:

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Regular time in nature is essential for children’s healthy development.

Children Nature Network

Nature Needs Children

While it’s true that children need time in nature, the reverse is true. Nature needs children! It’s the children that spend time in nature that grow up to be adults that want to protect and care for nature. And when we care for something or someone we have a deep desire to physically connect with it. We kiss our partner, hug our child, and snuggle with our pet. Nature needs children to physically connect with it.

In order not to steal nature from our children, we have to do two things. First, we cannot define nature as that which is untouched. This never made any sense anyway. Nature has not been untouched for thousands of years. Which brings me to the second thing that we have to do, which is that we have to let children touch nature, because that which is untouched is unloved.

Emma Marris – Nature is everywhere – we just need to learn to see it

What to Say to Children When They Want to Touch Nature

Instead of defaulting to “don’t touch!” whenever your child reached for something in nature, try to see the world from their eyes. When necessary, help your child learn that there are different types of touch for different types of nature. Of course, if something in nature is truly harmful or very sensitive help your child to identify the plant or animal and how to observe it without touching.

For example, some nature welcomes a gentle touch like butterflies, earthworms, tadpoles and moss. Other nature can handle a “hands on” approach like sticks, rocks, trees, mud, shells, leaves, snow, ice and water. And some types of nature shouldn’t be touched because it can be harmful such as poison ivy, stinging nettle, rattlesnakes, black widow spiders etc.

Here are some helpful prompts for helping your child learn different types of touch and how to help them identify plants or animals best observed using other senses.

What if my child hurts nature?

Nature can handle a child’s touch! However, if your child accidently squishes, rips or destroys something sensitive in nature remember that the best response in such a situation is to stay calm and be gentle. Don’t yell, belittle, punish or shame you child as this will only squash a child’s curiosity and interest in the nature world. Instead guide your child to show love and respect towards nature with your own actions and words.

But isn’t nature dirty?

Letting your child get dirty is actually good for them! Dirt, mud, rocks and sticks are full of wonderful bacteria that are beneficial for children’s immune systems.

Here’s a couple helpful tips from the book Let Them Eat Dirt:

Children should be outside often and should be allowed to be barefoot and to get dirty, and handwashing does not necessarily need to immediately follow these activities. 

When children are out walking or playing in a green space […] the risk of getting infected with microbes that carry human diseases decreases drastically. Allow your kids to touch anything they want (except animal waste), including dirt, mud, trees, plants, insects, etc. […] Let them stay dirty for as long as the play session lasts or until it’s time to eat.

In Conclusion

Let’s stop telling kids “don’t touch!” in nature. Nature is not a museum filled with untouchable artifacts. We need to let children climb trees, collect flowers, wade in creeks, hold earthworms, build fairy houses in the forest. If we allow our children to do these things they will grow into a new generation of healthy, happy adults that will want to protect what they love: nature.


1. Weeland, J., Moens, M.A., Beute, F., Assink, M., Staaks, J.P.C., Overbeek, G., (2019). A dose of nature: Two three-level meta-analyses of the beneficial effects of exposure to nature on children’s self-regulation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 65

2. French, A.N., Ashby, R.S., Morgan, I.G., Rose, K.A., (2013). Time outdoors and the prevention of myopia. Experimental Eye Research, 114, 58-68.

3. Roslund, M.I., Puhakka, R., Grönroos, M., Nurminen, N., Oikarinen, S., Gazali, A.M., Cinek, O., Kramná, L., Siter, N., Vari, H.K., Soininen, L., Parajuli, A., Rajaniemi, J., Kinnunen, T., Laitinen, O.H., (2020). Biodiversity intervention enhances immune regulation and health-associated commensal microbiota among daycare children. Science Advances, 6(42)

4. Stein, M.M., Hrusch, C.L., Gozdz, J., Igartua, C., Pivniouk, V., Murray, S.E., Ledford, J.G., Marques dos Santos, M., Anderson, R.L., Metwali, N., Neilson, J.W., Maier, R.M., Gilbert, J.A., Holbreich, M., Thorne, P.S., (2016). Innate immunity and asthma risk in Amish and Hutterite farm children. New England Journal of Medicine, 375(5), 411-421.

5. Roberts, A., Hinds, J., Camic, P.M., (2019). Nature activities and wellbeing in children and young people: A systematic literature review. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning

6. Dankiw, K.A., Tsiros, M.D., Baldock, K.L., Kumar, S., (2020). The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development: A systematic review. PLoS ONE, 15(2)

7. Carrus, G., Passiatore, Y., Pirchio, S., Scopelliti, M., (2015). Contact with nature in educational settings might help cognitive functioning and promote positive social behaviour. Psyecology, 6(2), 191-212.

8. Mackay, C.M.L., Schmitt, M.T., (2019). Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 65

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