Beyond Knowing Nature – 5 Pathways to Nature Connection

Owing to the benefits to both human and nature’s well-being, and wide spread disconnection, a connection with nature is something many people and organisations are keen to increase. So there is a need to know how best to do this. We’ve already developed specific interventions, such as 3 good things in nature, but our wider framework of effective routes to nature connection has just been published in Plos One. I’m excited about this work is it provides guidance for those seeking to re-connect people with nature, indeed it has been central to much of our recent nature connections work, for example, guiding the type of activities promoted as part of The Wildlife Trusts highly successful 30 Days Wild campaign.

General nature contact and knowledge based activities are often used in an attempt to engage people with nature. However the specific routes to nature connectedness have not been examined systematically, until now. Our latest research has revealed there is a need to go beyond activities that simply engage people with nature through knowledge and identification, to pathways that develop a more meaningful and emotional relationship with nature.

Does being able to identify birds matter for connection? Feathered friendship is more important.

The research started with two online surveys (total n = 321) of engagement with, and valuing of, nature activities structured around the nine values of the Biophila Hypothesis – this provided a useful starting point. The two sets of analyses confirmed that contact, emotion, meaning and compassion, with the latter mediated by engagement with natural beauty, were predictors of connection with nature – explaining an impressive proportion of the variance in nature connectedness. Importantly, knowledge based activities, such as observing nature and increasing understanding, were not related to nature connection. Similarly, purely utilitarian (e.g. growing veg and hunting) and dominionistic activities (e.g. using natural spaces for sport) were not related to nature connection.

So, in more detail the pathways to nature connection are:

  • Contact – The act of engaging with nature through the senses for pleasure e.g. listening to birdsong, smelling wild flowers, watching the sunset.
  • Beauty – Engagement with the aesthetic qualities of nature, e.g. appreciating natural scenery or engaging with nature through the arts.
  • Meaning – Using nature or natural symbolism (e.g. language and metaphors) to represent an idea, thinking about the meaning of nature and signs of nature, e.g. the first swallow of summer.
  • Emotion – An emotional bond with, and love for nature e.g. talking about, and reflecting on your feelings about nature.
  • Compassion – Extending the self to include nature, leading to a moral and ethical concern for nature e.g. making ethical product choices, being concerned with animal welfare.

Rather than ask ‘Can you identify this tree?’ – ask ‘How does it make you feel?’

In a third study (n = 72), contact, emotion, meaning, compassion and engagement with natural beauty were operationalised in a walking intervention. So, the activities involved things such as having a conversation with others about their thoughts and feelings about the nature around them, writing down the meaning of any symbolism they could infer from the nature they could see, and viewing a short video about creating homes for nature. This intervention was found to significantly increase connection to nature when compared to simply walking in nature – showing simple exposure isn’t enough.

The definitions and research provide pointers to the types of things to do in nature for connection:

  • Contact – get out and engage with nature. Use your senses to take a fresh look at trees,  touch the bark, smell the pine needles, listen to the wind through the leaves.
  • Meaning – consider what nature means to you. What’s your favourite local tree and why? It’s good to have meaning in our lives.
  • Compassion – think about what you could do for nature. Why not make a home for nature?
  • Emotion – find happiness and wonder in nature. Note the good things in nature, the joy they can bring.
  • Beauty – take time to appreciate beauty in nature and try to capture it through art or in words.

‘Interpretation Panels’ can actually guide interpretation using the pathways.

The pathways can also be interpreted to provide wider guidance. From interpretation panels to reserve and park design. Rather than focus on the abstractions of nature, the labels of the wildlife people might identify, interpretation panels can suggest the emotions people might feel; or prompt reflection on the beauty and meaning they may find; or suggest the senses they can use to explore this home for nature. Rather than providing a place to sit, provide a place that prompts reflection – it is clear the arts has a great deal to offer in reconnecting people to nature.

The pathways to nature connection can inspire design.

Taken together, the three studies show that contact, emotion, meaning, compassion, and beauty are pathways for improving nature connectedness. There is a need to move beyond superficial contact with nature or focussing on knowledge and identification when fostering a relationship with nature – just because citizen science and bioblitz are great for engaging people in conservation, doesn’t mean they foster a closer connection with nature. Of course, there is no need to abandon more knowledge-based activities, an understanding of nature has great value, and such activities will be a first step into nature for some. However, the brain feels before it thinks, so if developing a meaningful connection with nature is your goal, those activities need to be widened to include some of the pathways.

In summary, researchers and practitioners interested in facilitating nature connectedness and its associated benefits should ensure activities involve contact, meaning, emotion, compassion and engaging with nature’s beauty. The pathways also provide alternative values and frames to the traditional knowledge and identification routes often used by organisations when engaging the public with nature. The pathways provide a framework and plenty of ways to make nature part of your life, depending on what works for you. From being out, active and in contact, to reflecting on meaning, there are many ways to make nature part of your everyday being.


Lumber R, Richardson M, Sheffield D (2017) Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177186.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Our Growing Disconnection: The Decline of Nature in Fiction, Film and Song

A brief blog to quickly highlight a research paper just published in Perspectives on Psychological Science. The article opens with reference to the January 2015 letter to OUP protesting at the loss of nature words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. The study analysed works of popular culture throughout the 20th century, finding a cultural shift away from nature starting in the 1950s. The authors, Kesebir & Kesebir go on to consider what might explain the decline. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Beyond Contact with Nature to Connection

Over the last 15 years, nature connection has become a recognised and measurable psychological construct – one that describes an individual’s sense of their relationship with the natural world. That is our emotional attachment and beliefs about our inclusion within nature. These aspects affect our being – how we experience the world, our emotional response, our attitudes and behaviour towards nature. This blog accompanies the launch of the Nature Connections 2016 conference report which expands on why nature connection matters for wellbeing, summarises nature connection research and highlights key steps forward. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Nature Connections 2017

The Nature Connections conferences are now into their third year and this years event takes place at the University of Derby, Tuesday 27 June 2017. The headline theme this year is, ‘Beyond Contact with Nature to Connection’. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

How to change human behaviour to improve the state of nature

Human behaviour is the cause of the major threats to biodiversity and there is a need to recognise that conservation is not only about understanding animals and plants, but about people and their behaviour. Nature conservation organisations know this and increasingly look to social and human sciences for solutions. It is a great time for people to supplement their knowledge of the natural world with an understanding of human behaviour, and how to change it.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why Our Connection with Nature Matters

Nature is good for us, but why? There’s plenty of evidence that exposure to nature is good for people’s health, well-being and happiness – with green spaces even promoting pro-social behaviours. However, less is known about why nature is good for us. Simply put, nature is good for us, because we are part of nature. We are human animals evolved to make sense of the natural world. This embeddedness in the natural world can often be forgotten and overlooked, mentally we can become disconnected from nature because we’re now deeply embedded in a human-made world. Emerging research is showing that knowing and feeling this connection with nature is also good for us, and it helps bring about the wider health benefits of exposure to nature. Knowing your place in nature brings meaning and joy! Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Taking a trip into nature: What can LSD tell us about the brain and nature connection?

A connection with nature is comprised of an affective and experiential sense of belonging to the natural world and includes the extent to which nature is included within an individual’s view of self. This blog considers recent research in Current Biology on the impact of LSD on the brain, our sense of self and how our brains make meaning.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment