Simplicity and Meaning: Heddon Valley Reflections

For a couple of days last week I took part in an outdoor experiences workshop with the National Trust in the Heddon Valley in Devon. Eighteen or so people took part, all successful and creative in their own areas. It was an immersive time, both perspectives and rain! Ideas flowed and this blog emerged as I worked through them on my return.

I live far from the coast, so I purposefully arrived to catch the last of the light for a walk to the coast. After several months inland and four hours in the confines of a car the hit of arriving on the pebble beach was emotional and inspiring – energetic yet calming.

Arrival – becoming part of the whole

After a day exploring the valley, we were invited to share provocations, mine included:

  • We are not a nation of nature lovers.
  • Our relationship with (the rest of) nature has failed.

But there is hope for a new relationship and a good, worthwhile life:

  • We have a deep latent connection with (the rest of) nature.
  • Simple activities in nature can help reconnect.

Simple things matter

For me, within the many ideas and perspectives, simplicity was a theme over the two days. The dramatic landscape of Heddon is built from many simple things. The need to prompt and pause, to look and listen, was mentioned often. Whether it’s urban nature or a more natural valley we need reminders to pause on our journeys. Our successful interventions to notice the good things are based on prompts and I’ve written about affordances and designing human-nature interactions before. There are many creative ways to create prompts, pauses and new relationships – from technology and art works to simple looking and listening tools. We need more.

Simplicity: Listening to a Robin Sing

The latest research is starting to show how important the simple things in nature are for building nature connectedness, wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. I pointed out that the origins of the National Trust align with the very latest research, through the writing of Octavia Hill for example. The power of this to me is that 125 years ago and more there was an awareness of the importance of the simple things in nature for wellbeing. The Victorian naturalist and writer Richard Jefferies saw our connection with nature and the impact on mental wellbeing:

“We are of the great community of living beings, indissolubly connected with them from the lowest to the highest by a thousand ties” & “The mind joys in the knowledge that it too is a part of this wonder—akin to the ten thousand thousand creatures, akin to the very earth itself.”

The good things in nature are constant. Humans are fundamentally unchanged. It is our culture and technology that have changed and reinforced our disconnection from the rest of nature.

Listening to an excellent guide

One simple event on the first day was a trip to the cliff top for an unexpected cup of tea made from water boiled in a Kelly Kettle. I don’t think I was alone in finding this simple experience enjoyable and memorable. Once again simplicity matters.

The two days also made me reflect on how simple things can build to become an experience and the magic of the mundane versus curated events that can use the landscape to powerful effect – making meaning.

Making Meaning

The second day had a focus on creating great outdoor experiences and was, on reflection, a deep dive into creating meaning – one of the pathways to nature connectedness. We’ve put some work into understanding this pathway and improving our guidance on this pathway as initially it felt a little elusive despite it being central to human experience of nature. Our revised guidance refers to celebrating the mystery, signs and cycles of nature. To creating stories and folktales – letting nature be your story. I’ve also realised that knowledge about nature should be used as a tool to unlock meaning – and the other pathways.

So the perspectives of others more used to creating meaning were of great interest. Encouragingly, there was talk of creating tradition, ritual and personal stories – ‘Where you go changes who you become’. More can be done on how the pathways and elements of a story can interact – helping people step towards our pathways strapline – ‘Let nature be your story’. Later on day two when talking about woodland, I shared how some traditional folktales teach the danger of the woods, and suggested the need for new folktales about the danger of a warming climate and loss of wildlife.

Also encouraging was regular talk of relationships with nature – and play, another topic I’ve been keen to pursue, but these things need an injection of creativity and expertise. Bringing together the various perspectives and experience over two days is a great way to develop new ways to help create a new relationship with nature.

Micro-Activities & Actions

Building on simple things there was talk of small actions taken by many – the valley gets a lot of visitors. We’ve introduced nature as providing the ‘micro-foundations of well-being’ in papers written last year and our extended frameworks for nature engagement have recently been published.  I like the idea of micro-actions as well as prompts to pause and sense nature. Micro-actions to connect to nature and micro-actions to act for nature. Micro-volunteering perhaps where thousands of visitors do one simple thing. Micro acts for meaning where visitors share their experience to create a compelling vision for a new relationship with nature.

I expect many of us want to take away the feeling of a special time spent in nature. When returning from my initial walk to the sea I wanted to take that feeling away, there was a personal story to share, to be collected. There are many such stories to gather at the moment people are in a ‘changed state’ from their visit – their experience. This is also a form of listening, another key message from the two days. To listen to visitors. To listen to those that stay away. Set a direction for a new relationship with nature and listen to how to get there.

 

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Other Ways to Walk: linking research and creative practice

Guest blog by Rachel Howfield Massey

As an arts and wellbeing practitioner specialising in the benefits of nature connection I work creatively with people in nature supporting them to gain a sense of connection with themselves and their surroundings. It was a great pleasure recently to talk to Miles about the creative and playful approaches I am developing in my work with museums, galleries and heritage sector. We talked about the resources I’ve designed, including my origami ‘Nature Explore’ game, which has a series of open-ended questions to take the user on a journey of any distance and make nature connection discoveries along the way.

Resources – Other Ways to Walk origami ‘nature explore’ game

I was particularly interested in Miles’s matrix of ‘micro-activities’, as a foundation for developing prompts for nature connectedness focussed activities. I have developed a wide range of different resources, looking tools, invitations and activities to support nature connectedness, and it is interesting to think about them in relation to this matrix and the Five Pathways. I enjoy striking a balance between very practical activities, ‘look at a tree for a long time’ and more philosophical or poetic ideas ‘walk in a way that connects you with time and space’ – and sometimes the downright silly ‘follow a map of a different place’. I know from experience how these different approaches offer different ‘ways in’ for participants, but it’s great to map them against Miles’s matrix – and people always love to hear about how their nature connected experience is supported by measurable scientific evidence of the benefits to wellbeing.

My sessions and resources are necessarily open ended, designed to be used by people of all ages and abilities. They don’t follow prescribed routes or fixed activities and can be used in a tiny garden or on a full day hike, so the walker can create their own adventure of discovery. For example, my Other Ways to Walk cards include 15 individual cards with invitations to connect with nature and hand drawn images – use one card as a theme for a whole walk, or take turns to draw cards and follow the invitations.

Resources – Other Ways to Walk in Formal Parks cards

It’s impossible (and also undesirable) to plan a detailed session as the character of a particular stretch of path can change so dramatically from one hour to the next and real nature connection can only happen with what is actually there! A breeze might be rippling a field one moment and total stillness the next – a sudden blackbird alarm call can make you jump changing the mood entirely – bright sun gives way to cloud and thoughts close in.  There is no logical step-by-step process to nature connection, it’s an individual process and can happen in subtle or more powerful ways – but always based on meaningful engagement with nature.

For some, this might include invitations to slow down and linger using guided meditation, sensory activities, poetry and metaphor supported by reflective facilitated conversations. For others, it might involve games to randomise the route, or using chance to determine what activities we will do, drawing, poetry and various props to help people notice things that may have gone unnoticed. I’ve trained as a forest guide and mindfulness instructor, and also done a bit of animal tracking and forest immersion – magpie-like I take the bits that are relevant into my practice and synthesise them into whatever resource or activity is most appropriate for the circumstance.

Through a gradual process of carefully observing and listening to people in nature I am able to encourage them to follow their own fascination and curiosity, noticing what they are drawn to. This naturally leads to a sort of dance between the different themes identified in Miles’s matrix – an invitation to lie under a tree and notice movements in the branches can appear very passive, yet in reality the participant is moving between a great many experiences…

feeling the damp, cold earth under their body, smelling the earthy leaf litter, noticing sunlit spider threads, recalling childhood rolling down hills, appreciating details in the shape of branches,  feeling resonance or dissonance with the pace of movement in the branches, sensing changes in their thinking and emotions, wondering why they argued with their loved ones again that morning, hearing a dog in the distance, sounds bringing them back to the present and noticing that their attention had wandered from the tree, hearing birds, squirrels, the creak of the boughs, finding meaning in the way a robin flicks it’s tail, wondering how long they’ve got to lie here, feeling safe and protected by the tree, noticing a sense of opening and compassion…

The flow of thought and feeling interact with the sensory prompts from nature. People can simultaneously be admiring beauty, feeling compassion, connecting with feelings and tuning into their senses then without noticing this dissolves into thinking, planning, remembering, disconnecting from this experience of lying under a tree. The value is in noticing when they come back, training their senses to notice how it feels. As a guide I see it as my role to set the conditions and hold the space for this to happen, then to drop in facts or information to encourage or support one of the five pathways or link to another. For example, people sometimes need their words repeating back to them ‘so lying under the tree helped you feel safe – do you think the tree felt safe too? What could you do to help the trees stay safe?’ (linking to ‘emotions’ and ‘compassion’ in the matrix.)

Workshop Participant.  Photo Credit: Paul Floyd Blake

The real challenge for me is to facilitate learning from these experiences – to encourage reflexive behaviours and an understanding of how people can take this into their lives – so much of it happens inside someone’s mind, it can be hard to tell what’s happening.  Occasionally, someone joyously declares their life has been transformed and I go home with an extra glow – a recent participant said the experience was ‘like a kind of magic fairy dust. You’ve opened me up. I can see beauty in the world that wasn’t there before.’ These words have helped me too – to notice and welcome that feeling of joy when I notice some beautiful detail in nature.

 

Rachel Howfield Massey is arts and wellbeing practitioner and founder of Other Ways to Walk. She develops bespoke resources and offers training and consultancy.

For more information:

www.otherwaystowalk.co.uk

info@otherwaystowalk.co.uk

Facebook: @OtherWaysToWalk

Twitter: @rachelhowfield

 

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A Green Care Code

A theme of my research into improving our relationship with nature for both human and nature’s wellbeing has been that the simple things in nature matter. Our first intervention was simply noticing the ‘good things in nature’. Jotting down the good things in nature each day for a week led to sustained increases in nature connectedness – which helps us feel good and function well – and also increases pro-nature behaviours.

More recently we developed a smartphone app to prompt people to notice the good things in urban nature. People wrote about breeze in the trees, beauty of flowers, active wildlife, changing seasons, birds singing.  Doing so for a week led to a sustained improvement in nature connectedness and clinically significant improvements in mental health. It’s clear – simple moments matter. There is magic in the power of everyday nature because we evolved to make sense of nature.

Sadly, people tend not to notice nature. There are many demands for our attention and nature features less and less in our lives. Indeed, the climate and wildlife emergencies show that our relationship with nature is broken. Fixing that relationship requires transformational change throughout society. However, part of that change is more people being more aware of the benefits of a close relationship with nature. Reminding people to pause and notice the good things in nature.

We need a Green Care Code. A code where we care for nature and we care for ourselves. A future with more wildlife and more enjoyment of it. Coincidently, the simple message for a Green Care Code is much the same as the Green Cross Code – Stop. Look. Listen. So, as a bit of fun (and perhaps getting the message across), here’s what a Green Care Code might look like (thanks to my daughter):

Green Care Code

Thinking of the green cross code raises a wider point, where are the Public information films for the climate emergency? Where are the information campaigns for the biodiversity crisis?  Over the decades there have been public information films for crossing the road, road safety more generally, danger of farms and railways, swimming and ponds. There have also been extensive government health campaigns on smoking, drinking and eating. As there’s no well-being without nature’s well-being, new campaigns are needed as part of the transformational change required for a sustainable future. Currently, nature is overlooked too often. For example – as I’ve posted before – there’s no reference to the benefits of nature in the 5 Ways to Wellbeing. This matters because we need to emphasise the essential role of nature in our lives wherever we can.

 

(And a story board quickly put together with limited clipart).

A Green Care Code

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The good things in urban nature: An extended framework for nature engagement

Our latest article in Landscape and Urban Planning provides a thematic analysis of the good things in urban nature. The results are pioneering in that they begin to define the components of urban green space that have most value and meaning for urban citizens. I then combined the themes with the pathways to nature connectedness to produce a matrix of ‘micro-activities’. This provides a framework to inform many nature engagement activities, from social media content to urban planning – more on that later.

The research was part of the £1.3 million Natural Environment Research Council funded project IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature. The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby led the work package that developed the smartphone intervention that prompted users to notice the good things in urban nature each day for 7 days. We found that increasing connection to urban nature can bring clinically significant improvements in quality of life for those with living with a mental health difficulty – and bring significant benefits to all adults.

This research moves beyond our previous work by identifying common themes in the good things in nature that led to clinically significant improvements in wellbeing in an urban environment. Qualitative analysis of participants’ observations about the good things in urban green spaces revealed a number of themes.

The good things in urban nature

The dominant theme which emerged was participants’ wonder at encountering animals in day-to-day urban settings. Within this theme of appreciating urban nature, a large number of observations in the study related to the enjoyment of hearing bird song.

The second largest theme was that of expressing gratitude for street trees. The third most represented theme was the awe participants expressed at dramatic skies and views from high up looking down over the city. Minor themes included: green planting amongst built space; noticing flowering plants; mentions of water; natures beauty; feelings of awe and calm; . Of the main themes, it is interesting that biotic themes (e.g. Wonder at encountering animals; Gratitude for trees) had greater representation than abiotic themes (e.g. awe at dramatic skies and views). This may be indicative of our ‘biophilia’.

The good things in nature data and themes generated provide an insight to what people appreciate in urban nature. Therefore, when setting out to engage people with nature it is sensible to highlight them. Further, the pathways to nature connectedness provide a theoretical background and framework of the types of activity in nature required to improve nature connectedness. The themes and the pathways can be combined as each pathway activity can be developed around a theme of the good things in nature. Such matrix of themed activities can inform specific efforts to connect people to urban nature.

Indicative matrix of micro-activities from combining the good things in nature themes and pathways to nature connectedness to provide the micro-foundations for nature connectedness and inform activity programming, nature engagement media content, intervention and urban design. From https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2019.103687
Senses Emotions Beauty Meaning Compassion
Wonder at encountering wildlife Look out for and listen to wildlife Find wildlife that prompts joy and calm Note the beauty of wildlife. Consider what encountering wildlife means to you. Do something to care for wildlife
Gratitude for trees Take a moment to notice trees Find an awesome and calming tree Note the beauty of trees. Think about what trees mean to you. Do you have a favourite tree? Do something to care for trees.
Awe at dramatic skies and views Look up and out at the sky and views Notice how you feel as the sky changes. Different skies, different feelings? Take a moment to notice the beauty of clouds. What does your favourite view mean to you? What do the changing skies mean for nature and wildlife? How does nature change a view?
Green planting amongst built space Notice everyday nature in urban spaces. Compared to built spaces, how do green spaces feel? Notice the beauty of natural forms within the city. Use metaphors to describe plants in the city. What do plants in the city do for wildlife?
Flowering plants Take a moment to notice flowers How do flowers make you feel? Capture the beauty of flowers in words, images or music. Do different flowers mean different things? What do flowers do for wildlife?
Water Look at the movement of water, listen Notice how still and running water make you feel. Does the beauty of water depend on light? How can you use water to communicate a thought or idea? What can you do to help stop water pollution?
Nature’s beauty Find beautiful sounds in nature. What emotions does the beauty of nature bring? Why is nature beautiful? What does nature’s beauty symbolise? Can nature’s beauty bring care for nature?
Feelings/Emotions Look and listen for nature that brings calm and joy Complete a tick list of emotions in nature rather than wildlife Emotions are natural, are they beautiful? Does nature help regulate your emotions? How does it feel to do good for nature?

The matrix of 40 activities are indicative suggestions generated from combining the data themes and pathways. They aren’t intended to be exhaustive and provide example prompts for a wide range of nature connectedness focussed activities. Content for the matrix can be adapted or revised from differing perspectives such as mental health or urban planning through consulting experts and practitioners in those domains.

Given the basis in the pathways to nature connectedness and the good things in urban nature, the approach can be used for a variety of purposes around engaging adults with urban nature. For example, they can inform activity programming (especially when combined with a range of arts from photography to creative writing), social-media content for nature engagement and the design of green spaces.  As an example, an activity could be focussed on water, with elements that draw out the deeper relationships of the compassion and meaning pathways not seen when simply noticing the good things. The meaning theme provides a prompt for deeper reflection on why the good things in urban nature are inherently good, using metaphors to communicate these ideas. Therefore the water-meaning intersection provides a prompt for those involved in cultural programming in urban areas with access to water. Or, from the perspective of the urban planner or designer the water-meaning intersection provides a prompt to allow space for cultural programming close to water or specific infrastructure (e.g. social spaces, art installations, boardwalks) designed to to afford the activities and encourage deeper relationships between people and nature.

The results are pioneering in that they begin to define the components of urban green space that have most value and meaning for urban citizens; values and meanings that may strongly underpin an individual’s mental health given the results from associated research. Through combining the themes with the pathways to nature connectedness, the paper provides matrix of activities to prompt activity programming, nature engagement media content, interventions and urban design. Given the benefits to wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviour, it is important to align the aspects of urban nature that people enjoy with activity programming, intervention design, policy makers’ and town planners’ views of how best to design and develop cities.

 

 

This blog is based on excerpts from a post-print of the published article available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2019.103687

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Clinically Significant Improvements in Mental Health through Connecting with Urban Nature

In an increasingly urbanised world where mental health disorders have affected 30% of the global population, simple nature based solutions are often overlooked. Our recent paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows how increasing connection to urban nature can bring clinically significant improvements in quality of life for those with living with a mental health difficulty – and bring significant benefits to all adults. All through simply noticing the good things in nature – an approach I first developed at the University of Derby a few years ago.

The recently published research evaluated a smartphone based version. This allowed it to prompt users to notice the good things in urban nature each day for 7 days. In a randomised controlled trial, the app prompted 582 adults, including adults with a common mental health problem (n= 148), to notice the good things about urban nature (intervention condition) or built spaces (active control). There were statistically significant and sustained improvements in wellbeing at one-month follow-up. This improvement in wellbeing was partly explained by significant increases in nature connectedness and relaxed positive affect. This study provides the first controlled experimental evidence that noticing the good things about urban nature has strong clinical potential as a wellbeing intervention and social prescription.

The research was part of the £1.3 million Natural Environment Research Council funded project IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature. The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby led the work package that developed the smartphone intervention. To help engagement users interacted with the app through a ‘conversation’ with a ‘chatbot’ – the users companion for the week. The design operationalises some of the Behavioural Insights Team ‘Behavior Change For Nature: Behavioral Science Toolkit‘  strategies. It motivates through positive emotions, it socialises through reciprocity (social media sharing), it makes things easy through humanised message, simple messages and timely prompts.

The app also tracked the user’s time and use of green spaces using about 1000 ‘geofences’ in the city, reminding them to notice the good things in nature when near green spaces as most people spend the vast majority of their day indoors. The app also recorded what the user was doing, who they were with and the amount of biodiversity in the green spaces. This data will help show the links between the type of green spaces, biodiversity and well-being and is still being analysed or on its way to publication.

Back to the findings. The research highlights the need for engagement with nature in everyday life. We found that people who spent less time outdoors in the last year improved more on nature connectedness. Further, those who had lower baseline nature connectedness scores improved more. Overall, this is supportive of targeting those who spend little time outside and provides a simple engagement strategy.

Similarly, we found that those who had spent more time outdoors as a child showed a greater improvement in nature connectedness scores. There is some discussion that childhood exposure to nature is important for nature connectedness as an adult, but there have been no longitudinal studies to evidence this, so this is an interesting finding and perhaps evidence of a ‘latent nature connectedness’ – we know childhood connection drops sharply in adolescence. It is possible that a childhood connection with nature is reignited by noticing the good things in nature, this then results in a renewed nature connectedness and subsequent wellbeing benefits. There’s also the potential for use to help address the ‘teenage dip‘ in connection.

Looking at the mechanisms for the benefits in mental health, increased nature connectedness (25% higher sustained for 1 month) was a predictor of increased wellbeing in users of the app. This supports the growing importance of the psychological construct of nature connectedness as a new paradigm for wellbeing. In addition, increased relaxed positive affect was a significant predictor of the improvement in wellbeing in the green space condition.

This study was the first to use a multidimensional measure of positive affect, which distinguishes low arousal/positive valence affects (such as relaxed and safe positive affects) from high arousal/positive valence affects (such as activated positive affects) as an outcome measure for a nature connectedness intervention. Low arousal positive affects, such as relaxation, have been found to uniquely predict life satisfaction, depression, wellbeing, mindfulness, anxiety, and stress beyond high arousal positive affects, such as activation. The inclusion of the Types of Positive Affect Scale revealed a unique finding: an intervention which increased nature connectedness and relaxed positive affect predicted increased wellbeing. The finding that relaxed positive affect and nature connectedness were predictors of increased wellbeing is also consistent with our affect regulation account of wellbeing through nature, which states that low arousal positive affect such as relaxation and high arousal activated positive affect, such as excitement, can offer unique inputs to wellbeing through nature connectedness.

In sum, this study provides the first controlled experimental research evidence that a nature-based prescription can be effective in an urban environment. Prompting simple everyday engagement with urban nature can help improve nature connection and wellbeing. This can be done using a portable, widely accessible and cost-effective smartphone app, and is therefore of interest to public health organisations seeking solutions to mental health issues in an increasingly urbanised society.

 

 

McEwan, K., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., Ferguson, F. J., & Brindley, P. (2019). A Smartphone App for Improving Mental Health through Connecting with Urban Nature. International journal of environmental research and public health16(18), 3373.

Richardson, M. & Sheffield, D. (2017). Three good things in nature: Noticing nearby nature brings sustained increases in connection with nature. Psyecology.

Richardson, M., Hallam, J., & Lumber, R. (2015). One thousand good things in nature: Aspects of nearby nature associated with improved connection to nature. Environmental Values24(5), 603-619.

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An Experiment with a Bird

Over the past few years the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby has been focussed on delivering several research projects. Over the summer we found a moment to pause, update our pathways guidance (see below) and plan a team photo. For a group photo we wanted an image that prompted reflection on human-nature relationships, but was also a bit of fun. We could have gone out into nature, but our research shows contact and connection are different – independent and additive. Moving beyond contact to a close relationship with nature is important for human wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

Our new group photo was inspired by Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. At first sight this can seem like an odd choice. There are three reasons, two are simple, and the third requires a little more discussion. Firstly, Joseph Wright was from Derby, so is the group. Second, it’s more interesting (and enjoyable to be a part of!) than a standard group photo – it’s an experiment with a wooden bird. Third, in many ways the painting is about the human relationship with nature.

Members of the Nature Connectedness Research Group

Joseph Wright was from Derby, working at a time of scientific enlightenment – a period marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism. The reductionist scientific method focuses on minute and quantifiable factors with straightforward explanations of the data being sought. While it is an objective and informative approach, it should be remembered that it can miss dynamic and complex connections present in natural systems – we can’t measure and control every variable in a complex system. Some argue that the enlightenment and reductionist scientific method led to a separation of humanity from nature. Further, the painting was completed in 1768 towards the start of the Industrial Revolution, the start of unprecedented use of natural resources and fossil fuels. It is a time of increasing urbanicity and key changes to the human relationship with nature.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump shows people gathered to observe an air pump experiment into the nature of air and its ability to support life. The painting shows a cockatiel panicking, perhaps dying, as the air is the pump withdraws the air from the vessel. The witnesses display various emotions, from understandable distress to fascination. The painting reflects a certain type of relationship with nature and the natural world. A relationship of enquiry and knowledge where scientific curiosity overcomes concern for the bird – nature.

The nature of our planet’s atmosphere and impact on all life is a key concern now, a new relationship with nature is needed for a sustainable future. The Nature Connectedness Research Group studies our emotional connection to nature and the benefits to wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. We have replaced the bird with an artistic representation of nature, the type of pursuit that can help build a connection with nature, for the artist or the viewer. The photograph also includes one of our main research tools, a laptop, which adopts a natural symbol for its brand, just one way that the meaning of nature has changed in our lives and a symbol of the technology that defines us more and more. You might also spot some of the applications of our research, such as the National Trust 50 Things leaflet.

Our new pathways postcard – Let nature be your story

There are many types of relationship with nature, both sustainable and not, and we’ve recently refreshed the guidance on the positive types of relationship identified in our pathways to nature connectedness research in a new postcard (PDF). We’ve also produced a short video to help explain and illustrate the pathways. These help explain the types of activity to foster to improve nature connectedness. They provide an applied framework for those designing programmes, or places, to improve human-nature connectedness – bringing about the benefits to wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

For the Nature Connectedness Research Group our story is nature, let nature be your story.

 

 

 

Thank you to Geoffrey Shek and Jay Lawrence for the photography, and to the Dolphin Inn in Derby for the room.

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The Teenage Dip in Nature Connection and Youth Climate Strikes

Earlier this year our new population measure of nature connectedness revealed a sharp dip in nature connection from 10 years of age, reaching a low between 13 and 18, with a slow recovery to the adult population mean at around 30 years old – see the chart below and blog. The measure was developed and tested through use in the existing omnibus survey the MENE survey, which has accredited National Statistic status in the UK. Independent research by the RSPB and Exeter has found a similar profile.

This ‘teenage dip’ can seem at odds with the youth climate strikes that have been hugely successful in bringing urgent attention to the climate crisis. With the youth of today being deeply concerned about environmental issues, how can they also be disconnected from nature? There are two key factors. First, the different focus of the climate strikes and nature connectedness. Second, the difference between population means and activists.

Nature Connectedness across the lifespan

So, let’s look at the focus of each. Greta Thunberg’s school strike is ‘to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis’ (fridaysforfuture.org). Inspired by Greta Thunberg the UK Student Climate Network’s mission also focuses on action against climate change. Rightly so, U.N. WMO figures show global temperatures are currently on course for a 3-5 degrees Celsius rise by 2100, and it could be higher. Yet many still use the 2C target when explaining the consequences. It’s difficult to know what a 4 degree warmer world would be like, but it could well be the vast majority of humanity would need to live north of London – with insufficient land for food. This situation has been known about for many years, but very little meaningful action has been taken and a UKSCN demand is to communicate the reality.

Nature connectedness is a psychological construct that describes how close an individual’s relationship with nature is – how much they enjoy nature and its beauty, how important it is to them, whether they feel part of nature and if they treat nature with respect. Nature connection leads to pro-environmental behaviours and correlates well with ecological concern – the highly connected are likely to be more concerned about climate change (and have better mental well-being).

So, there’s a clear link, but some key differences in focus. These are highlighted well by looking at the content of Greta Thunberg’s powerful and effective speeches. Nearly 5000 words from www.fridaysforfuture.org/greta-speeches produces the word cloud below. Amongst the most frequent words (35 to 11 uses) are climate, people, crisis, emissions, children, future, countries, leaders and carbon. The words nature, wildlife and biodiversity do not appear, although there are six references to extinction.

Word cloud of Greta Thunberg’s speeches

By way of comparison the word cloud below shows 5000 recent words from this blog. The most frequent words (168 to 11 uses) are nature, connectedness, relationship, connection, human, research, people, behaviours, sustainable and future. Climate and biodiversity have 8 uses, wildlife 7.

Word cloud of nature connectedness blogs

The youth climate strikes rightly focuses on the threat to their future and the need for change to reduce carbon emissions. Nature connection is about our relationship with nature – important as the current climate and biodiversity crises stem from a failed relationship with nature and part of the change required is a new relationship, one that increases pro-nature behaviours and can help lead to a new concept of a ‘good life’. The climate strikes are about the threat to our future, nature connection helps describe what a future relationship with the natural world needs to look like.

There’s a need for language that demands action and language that builds a new relationship with nature for a sustainable future – perhaps they need to be different voices, but not competing. This has been highlighted recently by the response to an XR poster that implies a connection to nature is less impacting and humiliating. 

Nature connectedness also helps describe how we’ve ended up in this critical situation. The pathways to nature connectedness highlight the positive relationships with nature, and reveal the negative relationships that have exploited nature to create our modern world – utility, dominion and fear. Nature connectedness should be part of the new curriculum demanded by the UK Student Climate Network.

The second factor that explains the mismatch between the teenage dip in nature connection and the youth climate strikes comes through population means and activists. The dip from 64 at 9 years old to 47 at 14 is in the mean level of nature connection, there are still highly connected teenagers. In previous work we found 46% of children have a low connection and 18% a strong connection with nature. It may well be those supporting the climate action are part of this group, but we don’t have the data to know. However, because of the differences above there won’t be a perfect correlation between connection and climate action. Further, despite the large and impressive numbers at many climate strikes, it represents a small proportion of the teenage population. There are increasingly levels of concern about the environmental crises, but most are not acting on that concern. By increasing connection to nature it’s likely that there would be more people supporting climate action and undertaking pro-environmental behaviours.

So why the teenage dip? Again there’s been little specific research, only recently have a number of studies identified the dip in UK, Canadian, Australian and Chinese populations. However, we know that adolescence is a time of many developmental changes, including the development of self-identity. Identity formation sees childhood characteristics merge with emerging adolescent traits, and consists of a series of stages alongside coping with, for example, physical growth, group acceptance, love, and career choices. It may be that during this time nature, and one’s connection with it, loses importance (there’s a lot going on), but also that the climate movement is a group some (including the less connected) identify with and want to be part of.

Let’s hope more join those demanding climate action, to help bring about the urgent action required and also to help create a vision of new relationship with the natural world where a good life is defined by living in greater harmony with nature, rather than consuming the resources produced by exploiting and damaging the environment.

 

 

 

 

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