Applying the Pathways to Nature Connectedness at Societal Scale

The climate emergency and crisis of biodiversity loss show that the human-nature relationship is failing. The scale of these inter-related issues requires a new relationship with nature. Bringing about that new relationship with nature requires interventions and approaches that effect large changes at scale across society. In our latest paper we propose an approach to creating a new relationship with nature at a societal scale based on improving nature connectedness using a framework called the ‘pathways to nature connectedness’. The paper published open access in Ecosystems & People suggests how the pathways can be applied at various leverage points across policy areas such as education, health, housing, arts, health & transport. It’s a long read at around 10,000 words, so this blog presents a summary of some key aspects.

What is nature connectedness and why does it matter?

The psychological construct of nature connectedness describes an individual’s relationship with nature. It can be increased through carefully designed interventions to prompt engagement with nature – such as noticing the good things in nature. Nature connectedness matters because it brings benefits for both humans and nature; it is a causal factor in improved mental wellbeing, increased pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature conservation behaviours. The evidence of the benefits to wellbeing is such that it is argued that nature connectedness is a basic psychological need. The importance of the construct is further illustrated by proposals for its inclusion in the Gallup World Poll (GWP) which has an international reputation as a tool for global decision-makers.

Calls for ‘reconnection with nature’ have increased, but have been vague, with fragmentation around what nature connection is and with little concrete guidance towards achieving societies that are more connected to nature. The psychological construct of nature connectedness helps with the current diversity of approaches to understanding people’s connection with nature. It provides a measurable focus within this fragmentation, with an evidence base of benefits to the wellbeing of both people and nature.

Introducing the Pathways to Nature Connectedness

The pathways to nature connectedness provide a typology of activities that provide a methodological approach for improving human-nature relationships through targeting and increasing nature connectedness – you can find a summary of the 5 pathways (sensory contact, emotion, beauty, meaning and compassion) on this postcard, but briefly they are:

·       Senses: Noticing and actively engaging with nature through the senses. Simply listening to birdsong, smelling wild flowers, or watching the breeze in the trees.

·       Emotion: Engaging emotionally with nature. Simply noticing the good things in nature, experiencing the joy and calm they can bring, and sharing feelings about nature with others.

·       Beauty: Finding beauty in the natural world. Simply taking time to appreciate beauty in nature and engaging with it through art, music or in words.

·       Meaning: Exploring and expressing how nature brings meaning to life. Simply exploring how nature appears in songs and stories, poems and art, or by celebrating the signs and cycles of nature.

·       Compassion: Caring for nature. Simply thinking about what we can do for nature and taking actions that are good for nature, such as creating homes for nature, supporting conservation charities and rethinking our shopping habits.

Rather than a detailed model, the pathways present five overarching types of relationship involved in improving nature connectedness. They can be applied at various points, from individual activities in nature, to nature engagement programmes, to the design of infrastructure and school curricula and beyond to improve relationships between humans and nature on a larger scale. In sum, the pathways provide clear direction of the types of relationship for society to foster.

The pathways research was based on Kellert’s (1993) nine values of biophilia. Five of the nine were pathways to nature connectedness, four were unrelated to nature connectedness. These were fear of nature, dominion over nature, utilitarian use of nature and a purely scientific relationship.

Nature is often seen as a resource (utility), or a source of challenges to conquer (dominion), or nature is presented in terms of facts and figures (science), or as a threat (fear of nature). These types of relationship are common, often emphasised within capitalistic societies and can be seen as essential pathways for human survival and progress that, unchecked, have led to nature’s decline – as shown by the red arrow in Figure 1.

The five types of relationship which form the pathways to nature connectedness are included in the green arrow which points towards improved nature connectedness and its benefits: pro-environmental behaviour, pro-nature conservation behaviour and mental wellbeing. Greater focus on the types of relationship with nature that promote nature connectedness can lead to a new, more sustainable, relationship with the natural world.

Figure 1. A graphical summary of the types of human-nature relationships, nature connectedness and their outcomes. Key: Pro-env. = pro-environmental (carbon & resource use reduction); Pro-nature = pro-nature conservation (wildlife habitat creation).

Societal relevance of the pathways approach

The application of the pathways has informed a successful large-scale campaigns (e.g. 30 Days Wild) and visitor experience programming (e.g. at the National Trust and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust). However, a paradigm shift in human-nature relationships is required at a larger scale. But which of the five pathways have greatest societal relevance? The full paper discusses this in detail, but here’s a brief summary.

Figure 2. Types of positive relationship with nature and scale of relevance and leverage. The statistical importance for nature connectedness identified by Lumber et al (2017) is represented by the solid oval. The proposed scale of relevance is represented by the dashed oval.

The relevance of the pathways for individual and societal connectedness to nature, and their potential for application at deep leverage points (more on that later), is represented in Figure 2 which considers the location of connection/leverage points (X-axis) and scale of relevance (Y-axis) for the five types of relationship with nature found to be positive pathways to nature connectedness. Let’s consider the societal relevance of each pathways in turn.

Meaning is related to cultural aspects of our lives that have great resonance at a societal scale. This pathway relates to deeper relationships, the symbolic use of nature to represent ideas, and provides an opportunity for societal change. Cultural programmes could be focused on developing these deeper relationships with nature on a large scale – through the cultural celebration of our relationship with nature and renewed appearance of nature in cultural products – and fundamental societal systems such as health care for example.

Emotions can, and have been, targeted on a large scale (e.g. consumerism) and brought societal scale changes. Emotions are fundamental features of human function. As far back as 1928, Edward Bernays targeted people’s unconscious desires in order to manipulate people towards items they didn’t need – creating modern public relations through appealing to people’s emotions. These ideas helped develop consumerism and self-absorption in Western society.  Edward Bernays recognised the scale of relevance of emotion, using them to mould public desire, shaping a consumer culture and shifting social norms at a societal scale. Through public relations campaigns, emotions could change social norms to a situation where a good life is seen as a nature connected life, rather than a consumerist life. The recent shift from the desire for experiences rather than consumer goods provides an opportunity to promote pathways focused experiences, rather than basing them on dominion and utilitarianism.

Compassion. Although care for nature is an overall goal of a new relationship, Figure 2 suggests that the compassion pathway doesn’t necessarily present opportunities for deep leverage. This is because it is likely that other changes are required first. Those engaged with pro-nature conservation behaviours typically have higher levels of nature connectedness. So before engaging people with pro-nature conservation behaviours that can require personal commitment, there could be a need to increase connectedness through meaning and emotion. However, humans are a social species, our capacity for co-operation emerged from social connectedness and emotional bonds. Therefore, focusing on the similarity of people with nature, rather than focusing on developing concern for nature directly may function as a more effective societal leverage point. For example, research shows that anthropomorphism can drive nature connectedness. The similarity of people and the rest of nature as a common discourse, rather than consumptive and dominance frames are required together with the provision of more opportunities for people to care for wildlife everyday, for example through access to places where people can easily engage in pro-nature conservation behaviours.

Beauty is a strong theme when people are asked to notice the ‘good things in nature’ – however we know that the beauty pathway works together with other pathways, such as when deriving meaning or evoking emotions. So, it is likely that this pathway doesn’t lever transformational change on its own. Rather, beauty needs to be available for sensory contact and wider meaningful engagement with nature.

Sensory contact is a pathway that relates to interaction, therefore there is a need for engagement with a wide variety of nature – which is provided in accessible and everyday places. Of course easily accessible nature does not have to be engaged with, so there is a need to design places, campaigns and activities to prompt that engagement. Nature contact can have a large scale of relevance and bring societal impact on nature connectedness if the engagement is fostered – through cultural programmes for example. When sensory contact is prompted, for example, through noticing the good things in nature or campaigns such as 30 Days Wild, there is evidence of a positive and sustained impact on nature connectedness. These interventions and our other work also highlight that the pathways to nature connectedness rarely work alone. Sensory contact involves noticing beauty, it elicits emotions, brings meaning and can involve care for nature.

Nature Connectedness, System Characteristics and Leverage Points

A truly sustainable future will challenge basic assumptions on the organizing of a society. Leverage points (Meadows, 1999), consider the parts of the system where maximum impact can be gained from small changes. Meadows (1999) describes twelve leverage points from shallow places where interventions are relatively easy to implement, but less impactful on system behaviours, to deep places where interventions are difficult but can deliver transformational change. Abson et al. (2017) note the twelve leverage points fall into four broad groups:

  • The shallowest are system parameters, for example standards.
  • Next, interventions can target feedback loops, the interactions between system elements.
  • Third are social structures that manage feedbacks and parameters.
  • Finally, the deepest group are intentions, the underpinning values and goals that shape the emergent direction of a system.

Where can nature connectedness have greatest leverage? Where can the pathways approach be applied for maximum effect? There’s a more detail in the full paper, but here’s a few examples.

System intentions: values and goals

The values and goals of the system are the deepest leverage points and therefore most important – often simple to write, but most difficult to change. For example, take a look at the priorities of the UK Government’s Department of Education (Sept. 2020):

“We’ll develop world-class education with the following principles:

  • ensure our academic standards match and keep pace with key comparator nations
  • strive to bring our technical education standards in line with leading international systems
  • ensure that education builds character, resilience and well-being”

Standards and well-being are important – but there is no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing. Revising these principles to include a goal for a sustainable relationship with nature would be a simple change of wording, but very difficult to achieve. Being a deep leverage point, it would though have a great impact on schools, curriculum and teaching.

More widely, facts and research evidence can help establish goals. For example, nature connectedness being four times more important for living a worthwhile life than socio-economic status could help make it a goal for some. However, values come from meaning, which can come from experiences, but also how nature is reflected in society, such as in our models of human well-being.  Formally recognising the value of a right to a close relationship with nature would be very powerful. For example, a close relationship with nature could be considered as a universal human right, similar to the right to family life and social connections. This deep leverage is difficult to achieve, but would be a major contribution to embedding a new relationship with nature through wider society.

System design: institutions and social structures

Social structures manage feedbacks and system parameters – these rules, incentives and constraints create the social environment. Given the climate and biodiversity crises, policy and organisational goals should acknowledge the need for a new relationship with nature. Nature connectedness can be coupled into structures as an institutionalizable target – it is measurable so the nature connectedness of the people an organisation works with could be a strategic priority with associated Key Performance Indicator (KPI). A strategic plan and intention to improve nature connectedness can adopt and apply the pathways to nature connectedness.

A strategic plan for nature?

System feedbacks: the extinction of experience

A key reinforcing feedback loop in relation to human-nature relationships is ‘extinction of experience’.  The on-going reduction in experience of nature permeates culture and society such that social feedback helps reinforce a social norm of reduced experience of nature. Increased urbanisation, especially when poorly designed, reduces the opportunity to engage with nature – reducing positive feedback. This is then reflected in cultural feedback, for example, the decline of references to nature in cultural products – which all adds to loss of orientation to engage with nature. There is potential to shorten feedback related to the five key relationships identified by the pathways, while disrupting feedback loops related to the four non-pathways relationships. This can include measures to strengthen feedback regarding the positive links between people and local nature and on the health of the natural world.

System Parameters: standards, policy and infrastructure

Standards, policy and infrastructure provide valuable but weak leverage points. Infrastructure is slow to change, however, policy can help show what is valued and also turns on or off the taps of funding. Policy change may be relatively ineffective in influencing behaviour, but can send a clear message on the types of behaviour that are favoured. Therefore, policy changes can contribute to the deeper paradigm shift required for a healthier relationship between humans and the natural world.

We present more details and recommendations in the full paper, there’s also some ideas in our New Relationship with Nature Briefing here.

Summary and Recommendations

The pathways to nature connectedness provide an important framework to help deliver solutions toward a new relationship with nature. It is proposed that the meaning and emotion pathways to nature connectedness can provide the deep leverage required to increase sensory contact. These three pathways have a large scale of societal relevance and the potential to provide solutions across a range of leverage points to foster closer human-nature relationships. Resulting interventions can also encourage people to engage with the remaining two pathways, to engage with nature’s beauty and to care for nature.

As a basic psychological need, nature connectedness should inform the values and goals of our systems for maximum impact on the human-nature relationship for a sustainable future. The pathways to nature connectedness provide a structured means to inform new societal and institutional goals. Using new narratives to highlight the meaning of nature to humans, such as models of health that unite wildlife and human wellbeing, can provide new values and desirable ‘system goals’. Approaches from mass-consumer persuasion through appealing to people’s emotions can also play a role in influencing values and goals on a large scale.

Changes in system values and goals inform the design of institutions and social structures for a new relationship with nature. As a measurable construct, nature connectedness can be a key performance indicator for institutions, such as those delivering health and wellbeing. Targets can be set and the pathways used to inform strategic plans. For example, including the enjoyment of nature in health and social care delivery.

To help create new social norms, a closer relationship with nature can be integrated into social structures with incentives, such as funding for cultural products and urban design informed by the pathways. More sensory contact, sharing of positive emotions, and structures that shorten system feedback along pathways to nature connectedness can counter the extinction of experience and renew the human-nature relationship. Feedback regarding the positive links between people and local nature for wellbeing, and on the health of the natural world can also be enhanced.

Standards and policy provide weak leverage points, but many opportunities to apply the pathways to nature connectedness. For example, education curricula can be informed by the pathways, transport policy can be used to promote pathways relationships and planning policy can help turn public spaces into places that prompt sensory contact, celebrate nature, and elicit positive emotions through engaging with nature. Arts policy should recognise the close links between cultural expression and the pathways to nature connectedness.

In sum, as humans we are deeply affected by emotions and stories with meaning. We want to believe our lives are worthwhile and meaningful. The power of emotions and trust in shared stories have been used to bring millions of people together, to create consumer culture and ultimately disconnect us from nature, damaging the natural world in the process. However, as a species, our story is nature and for a sustainable future, nature needs to re-emerge as the human story through societal values, social structures, feedback and policy. The pathways to nature connectedness provide a framework for improving human-nature relationships within that context.

 

Enjoyed this blog? Try reading A New Relationship with Nature: what it means and what we can do.

 

M. Richardson, J. Dobson, D. J. Abson, R. Lumber, A. Hunt, R. Young & B. Moorhouse (2020) Applying the pathways to nature connectedness at a societal scale: a leverage points perspective, Ecosystems and People, 16:1, 387-401, DOI: 10.1080/26395916.2020.1844296

 

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Moments not Minutes: The Trouble with Time and Green Prescriptions

Might green prescriptions undermine the benefits of spending time in nature? That was the research story that made the news last week with completely misleading headlines like “Green prescriptions don’t work”. The story was based on research published in the journal Scientific Reports. The cross-sectional study investigated whether time in nature has the potential to help people with mental health issues. The press release suggested that giving people with existing mental health conditions a ‘green prescription’, may undermine some of the benefits. However, as we will see below, there’s more to the study and there is good empirical evidence that well-designed green prescriptions do work.

The aim of the research was to understand people’s motivations to spend time in nature, how often they visited green/blue space, and how social pressure influenced the emotional experience of the most recent blue space visit. The study collected data from more than 18,000 people in 18 different countries. The report acknowledges the work was based on a cross-sectional survey of visit frequency and experience of a recent blue space visit, rather than a pre-post evaluation of specific green prescriptions.

Is a nature visit about time spent or emotional engagement?

Encouragingly, there was evidence from the findings that some people with mental health issues use nature as part of their own symptom self-management. Previous research has found that people seek out nature for emotional regulation when happy and sad – a topic I considered more deeply in a 2019 paper. The findings also suggested that although pressure to spend time in nature can encourage visits, that pressure can also undermine the emotional and wellbeing benefits of time in nature – highlighted in the press release. The more pressure people felt to visit nature, the less motivated they were and levels of anxiety increased.

In our large scale evaluation of a green prescription based on improving nature connectedness (the closeness of our emotional relationship with nature), rather than time in nature and visits, we found that people with mental health issues reported sustained and clinically significant improvements in mental health. People who reported spending less time in nature before the study benefitted more. Using a smartphone app (now available within Go Jauntly), we asked people to notice and write down the good things in nature, rather than prescribing visits to, or time in, nature – although we designed the app to prompt people to notice nature when they were near a green space if possible. A nature connection and the ‘three good things in nature’ approach is now part of a green prescription pilot being run by RSPB Scotland in collaboration with NHS Lothian’s charity partner, the Edinburgh and Lothians Health Foundation.

A nature connectedness, or moments and minutes approach is also supported by very recent work yet to be published. We’ve found that an audio meditation based on the pathways to nature connectedness improved the wellbeing benefits of time spent in nature. Similarly, in another recent study people asked to “tap into their sense of wonder” on a 15 minute walk in nature found greater awe, joy, pro-social and positive emotions than those that just walked in nature.  This also made the news, but again many of the headlines focussed on time and the benefits of a 15 minute walk, rather than the benefits of developing an emotional connection with nature during that walk.

There seems to be an assumption that green prescriptions are simply about visiting nature or spending time in nature. After all, a great deal of valuable research that has shown that nature is beneficial for human wellbeing uses time and visits to nature as a variable. However, research has largely overlooked the relevance of person specific factors such as nature connectedness. Time and visit frequency are both straightforward to measure, they provide a reasonable proxy for nature connectedness, but when nature connectedness is added to the model time matters less.

In a study using similar methods to the work described above, we’ve found that nature connectedness  was important over and above getting out into nature for eudaemonic wellbeing – living a worthwhile life. Visiting nature was associated with  general health – but not directly to eudaemonic wellbeing. However, nature connectedness influences the way in which people respond to visits and time in nature. This suggests that for health and mental wellbeing interventions are needed that increase both time in, and connection to nature.

All of these results suggest that a more nuanced approach to green prescriptions and human-nature interactions is necessary. It should also be remembered that nature doesn’t have a ‘part-time role’ in wellbeing that prescriptions based on ‘doses’ or visit frequency and time might suggest. Nature is a fundamental, and a close connection to it emerging as a basic psychological need. Green prescriptions need to be carefully designed to consider nature connectedness and the experience in nature, rather than a simple instruction to visit and spend time in nature. Otherwise the prescription might not deliver optimal benefits and undermine motivation for nature-based experiences.

 

Tester-Jones, M., White, M. P., Elliott, L. R., Weinstein, N., Grellier, J., Economou, T., & Nieuwenhuijsen, M. (2020). Results from an 18 country cross-sectional study examining experiences of nature for people with common mental health disorders. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-11. 10.1038/s41598-020-75825-9

Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R., Sible, I. J., Kosik, E. L., Veziris, C. R., & Miller, B. L. (2020). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion.

Martin, L., White, M. P., Hunt, A., Richardson, M., Pahl, S., & Burt, J. (2020). Nature contact, nature connectedness and associations with health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101389.

Richardson, M. (2019). Beyond Restoration: Considering Emotion Regulation in Natural Well-Being. Ecopsychology11(2), 123-129.

Details of Tester-Jones et al. (2020) adapted from the press release: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/research/title_824180_en.html

 

 

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Why the mundane is magical, and how we can keep it that way

A guest blog by Julian Dobson about our work together on the IWUN project

Governments like ambitious plans. They love to talk in terms of billions of pounds and ‘moonshot’ aspirations. The shiny and spectacular make better headlines than the everyday labour of caring for what we already have. But that everyday work of caring is foundational to our quality of life, as new research on urban green spaces underlines. The research from the Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (IWUN) project, published in the journal Cities, highlights the ‘magic of the mundane’: the way ordinary spaces and places, and everyday activities within them, support our mental health and the health of the more-than-human world around us.

Caring is the activity that has been most neglected over the last decade. Money for the ordinary activities of local government, which looks after most of our parks and green spaces in the UK, has been reduced year after year, as the National Audit Office has detailed: between 2010 and 2017/2018, central government funding for English local authorities fell by 49.1 per cent in real terms, and spending power fell by 28.6 per cent. Green spaces, which are not a statutory responsibility, have been first in line for cost-cutting in many localities.

Our Cities article reveals how green spaces sit at the intersection of three types of stress: the mental stress facing people living in our cities, the institutional stresses faced by local government and public services, and the ecological stresses that are taking a growing toll on the natural world as a consequence of human activity.

Through our work in Sheffield, the research team found that there were a wide variety of ways in which connecting with nature supported mental wellbeing, and spaces in which people could grow and nurture those connections.

‘Karen’, a mental health service user who attended a workshop held as part of the project, described the scrubland seen on her daily journey as ‘always different. It ebbs and flows like the sea’. The head of therapy at a health trust spoke of her joy at seeing spring flowers or noticing frosty landscapes.

Finding magic in the mundane

Such experiences are best not handed to people by prescribing a ‘dose of nature’ as if it were a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. Better that they are made possible each day through quite ordinary, but undervalued, practices of looking after our wildlife and green spaces, making sure they are safe and inclusive, creating walker-friendly and interesting routes, and providing facilities such as toilets that make places accessible to those who would otherwise be excluded.

There is value too in social prescribing, the practice of addressing health problems or aiding recovery through activities in the community rather than medical interventions. A health walk or an arts workshop, or just being able to sit in a green space safely and without anxiety, can effectively complement medical help and enable people to find ways of dealing with their own health conditions. But it is not a cheap substitute for traditional healthcare or an off-the-peg solution: our work emphasises the importance of understanding people’s own connections with nature and sense of self.

What we do know is that connections with nature are psychologically important and should be encouraged. Our work using a smartphone app showed that noticing good things in urban nature over seven days resulted in improvements in mental wellbeing that lasted two months. These ‘good things’ were everyday experiences – the view of a tree or sky, a flower in a wall or a squirrel in a park.

Noticing the good things in urban nature

But these everyday interactions are underpinned by unseen work, and are vulnerable if that work is neglected. If you design urban spaces with a high density of high-rise blocks to maximise profit on available land, you squeeze out the natural world and people’s opportunity to engage with it. If you have to cross a busy arterial road to visit your local park, you might be less inclined to bother.

If you fail to care for woodlands or canal towpaths and they become littered with glass and fly-tipped rubbish, people will stop using them. If you starve community organisations of funding so that they cannot organise local events and celebrations in parks, people will be more likely to stay in their homes. Nature then becomes less meaningful in people’s lives.

This story of neglect and simply not noticing what it takes for a town or city to offer a good quality of life is repeated time and again, and typifies current planning and practice in the UK. This is why our research, much of what emphasises what might appear obvious, matters.

It is also why a transdisciplinary approach is important. The world can’t be reduced to the findings of one empirical method, and neither can policy: how we plan and care for our towns and cities relates as much to people’s perceptions and experiences as it does to their physical health or economic prosperity.

So we need an approach that appreciates multiplicity and complexity, which is why we turned to affordance theory and the notion of ‘redundant causality’ in our work. Affordance theory highlights the many possibilities that a space or an object can offer – a tree can be a climbing frame, a memorial, a space of solace, a wildlife habitat, a provider of food and a carbon sink, among many other roles. More on affordances in nature here and here.

The idea of redundant causality is that there can, and should, be many ways to reach a destination. If the policy objective is better mental health, then natural spaces should provide multiple ways of enhancing wellbeing. But not everyone will want to be outside – for some the outdoors is a place of fear. So the ‘best’ way of supporting wellbeing will be different for each person.

So we highlight four messages for policymakers, which can support the multiplicity of experiences of urban nature that enable city dwellers to have a rich quality of life.

Encounter nature in everyday journeys

First, we need sustained investment in the everyday physical and social infrastructure of urban natural spaces. This investment should create spaces of interest and surprise, promote social interaction and include funding and support for ongoing maintenance, care and renewal and increased biodiversity.

Second, we need to see green infrastructure as social infrastructure as well as an ecological network. Travellers should encounter nature in everyday journeys. High quality natural spaces should be provided equitably to ensure minorities and people with disabilities or health problems can access them. Policymakers should support the organisations and intermediaries (such as civil society organisations) that bring natural spaces to life. This will prompt a variety of experiences and relationships outlined in our pathways to nature connectedness.

Our third recommendation is that, in addition to engaging with nature to maintain wellbeing, healthcare providers should make use of green and natural spaces to support recovery from mental and physical illness and to manage continuing health conditions.

Fourth, policymakers should recognise that the health benefits of green spaces are dependent on a diverse and active network of community-based organisations and groups that link people, places and wellbeing. Such groups need to be included in decision-making and supported by national and local policies and funding.

These recommendations aren’t difficult or expensive to implement, compared with many of the initiatives governments have funded. But they do demand a change in mindset, letting go of the obsession with the new and shiny and valuing the magic of the everyday.

 

Dobson, J., Birch, J., Brindley, P., Henneberry, J., McEwan, K., Mears, M., Richardson, M. & Jorgensen, A. (2020). The magic of the mundane: The vulnerable web of connections between urban nature and wellbeing. Cities, 108, 102989.

 

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What best explains children’s connection with nature?

There is growing interest in reconnecting children with nature. With the relationship between children and nature being the focus of much commentary and research. Many organizations direct a great deal of resource into programs and policies to reconnect children with nature. To be most effective, these efforts should be informed from an understanding of the factors that explain higher levels of children’s nature connectedness – that close relationship with nature which is associated with well-being of both people and nature.  Our paper exploring various factors that explain children’s nature connectedness has been published recently. This blog provides a summary.

Connecting with the simple things in nature

The growth of research into nature connectedness has largely been with adults, but recent research highlights the importance of nature connectedness for children’s well-being. A study of  close to 30,000 Canadian children found that those who felt a connection to nature was important had 25% fewer mental ill-health symptoms (Piccininni et al., 2018). Other research has determined that nature connectedness is a key predictor of pro-nature behaviours in children. Another area of research has revealed a teenage dip in children’s nature connectedness with levels dropping by up to 30% from age 9 to 15. Research in this area has also found that current levels of connection to nature are not at levels needed for a sustainable future.

Although there is research into childhood experiences in nature (e.g. Soga et al., 2018), there is less understanding of the factors involved in children’s nature connectedness. So using data from the nationally-representative Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey of households in England we investigated the associations between children’s nature connectedness and several factors:

  • Children’s nature visits; child age and gender;
  • Adult (from the same household) nature connectedness, nature visits, nature program watching, and demographics;
  • Neighbourhood greenspace, urbanicity, and deprivation.

The MENE data is collected face-to-face across England, and throughout the year, in order to reduce geographical and seasonal biases. Participants were drawn from eight waves of the MENE survey. Adult and child nature connectedness was measured using the Nature Connection Index.

Headline Results

First we looked at child characteristics. Results of a linear regression model showed that child gender and age emerged as the only significant predictors of child nature connectedness. Girls had a more positive association with nature connectedness, whereas older children had lower levels of nature connectedness – as expected from previous research. Surprisingly, nature visits were not related to nature connectedness – more thoughts on that later.

Looking at the links between children’s nature connectedness and parent/guardian characteristics, adult nature connectedness emerged as the only significant predictor of child’s nature connectedness. None of the other adult characteristics assessed (gender, age, marital status, frequency of nature visits, watching/listening to nature programs) significantly predicted child nature connectedness. Our analysis also showed that the socio-economic status of the household was not related to a child’s nature connection.

Finally, the analysis looked at the relationship between area-level characteristics and children’s nature connectedness. Contrary to expectations, higher levels of neighbourhood greenspace were related to lower levels of nature connectedness. In contrast, neighbourhood deprivation was positively associated with children nature connectedness. Urbanicity was not significantly related to children’s nature connectedness – although there was a relatively small number of rural residents in our sample. Some unexpected results here, so let’s consider them further.

Frequency of visiting nature was not related to children’s connection to nature. This might seem surprising, considering the relationship between nature contact and nature connectedness observed elsewhere. However, time in nature is often linked to short-term increases in nature connectedness. Even then, other research has found that simple contact with greenspaces such as a vegetated courtyard or parks does not always lead to short-term improvements in nature connectedness. From a pathways to nature connection perspective this is likely due to passive contact with nature rather than active engagement.

In the survey, nature visits include open spaces in and around towns and cities, the coast and the countryside. We can ask how many of the children’s nature visits were to fenced-off play grounds in the local park? Or the play area near the car park? Do more nature connected parents visit different types of green spaces and do different things when they are there? Given parents connection was the biggest predictor of children’s connection, it seems likely that they do.  And we know nature connectedness is improved with the right type of activities, such as noticing nature or 30 Days Wild. How many local parks facilitate those experiences?

A nature connection experience?

There was an unexpected finding that neighbourhood deprivation was positively associated with children’s nature connectedness. This is counter-intuitive as children from higher-income households spend more time visiting nature – but then we found no relation between nature visits and nature connectedness. However, other research has found children in more deprived neighbourhoods spend more time outdoors with friends, maybe engaging with nature while making dens or collecting the natural objects they find. Further, research shows that children from households in more deprived areas tend to spend less time using smartphones, which is predictive of greater nature connectedness.

Teenage nature connection matters

Similarly, there was an unexpected negative relationship between neighbourhood greenspace and nature connectedness. Again, we also found no relation between nature visits and nature connectedness. However it should be noted that the measures of neighbourhood deprivation and greenspace are related – greenspace is generally of reduced quality in areas of greater deprivation. Also, whilst providing unique insights into the factors associated with child nature connectedness, our results, like all similar studies, should be considered within the context of their limitations. First, the cross-sectional approach limits the ability to make causal inferences. Second, the majority of the data is based upon retrospective self-reports. Third, as mentioned above, we know little about the quality of contact with nature during the visits.

Conclusions

Perhaps most important is that having an adult with high nature connectedness in the same household was the strongest predictor of children’s nature connectedness. So, it’s likely that the most effective policies and programs will be ones that also involve parents and guardians. Of similar significance was age – we must continue to foster a connection with nature into adolescence rather than focus programs on younger children.

Our analysis also challenges some assumptions. It shows that policy and programs geared to reconnecting children with nature should go beyond a focus on visits and access. The purpose and reality of that access and those visits needs to be considered. Nature visits and local greenspace don’t necessarily bring a closer connection with nature – what matters is what children experience during those visits. It should be remembered that connection can be built away from visits to nature, at home, in school and noticing nature in the neighbourhood. Further, children from less deprived neighbourhoods with good access to nature still need to be considered when attempting to improve connection.

In sum, as shown in our other MENE work, nature access and nature connection are different, but both are needed for health and mental wellbeing – of people and planet. Clearly, the better our understanding of what fosters nature connectedness in children, the more effective our programs can be.

 

Passmore, H. A., Martin, L., Richardson, M., White, M., Hunt, A., & Pahl, S. (2020). Parental/Guardians’ Connection to Nature Better Predicts Children’s Nature Connectedness than Visits or Area-Level Characteristics. Ecopsychology.

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Deviant personalities and their relationship with nature

A guest blog by Dr Dean Fido & Dr Alice Rees.

The affinity that humans share with nature is well-documented, as are the benefits of living a life interwoven and connected with nature. Such benefits include facets that are key to living a worthwhile live and the protection against poor mental wellbeing. Our research group has also found nature connectedness plays a part in pro-social and empathic behaviour (Fido & Richardson, 2019; Passmore & Holder, 2017). In the West, this presents a strong disparity with the Hobbesian viewpoint that selfish and aggressive behavioural trends are somewhat normaland adaptivein the modern world. To date, however, this remains a highly under-researched avenue of investigation.

In psychology, dark personalitiesare commonly characterised by conceptually distinct yet overlapping personality traits present throughout the general population. They include personalities which thrive on a callous disregard for others, cynicism, self-centeredness, and manipulation. These traits are commonly labelled psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sadism and even though research into nature connectedness has grown exponentially over the last decade, we are the first to explore the role of dark personality in the experience of nature. The results of that research have just been published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Free access until 20/11/20; Fido et al., 2020; also pre-print: https://psyarxiv.com/shd7v).

Our latest research looks at two UK based adult samples and the links between psychopathy and nature connectedness. We see that psychopathy (i.e., deficits in empathy and the emotional connection to others) predicts low levels of nature connectedness. This mirrors our earlier findings that low levels of nature connectedness are associated with greater callous and unemotional traits (an index of psychopathy) (Fido & Richardson, 2019; https://psyarxiv.com/dtc42/). We found this pattern with Machiavellianism (cynicism and manipulation) and sadism (enjoyment of inflicting and watching pain in others) which suggests a general lack of empathy in those low in nature connectedness. These relationships persisted even when considering the participant’s disposition (or lack thereof) to be connected with wider aspects of society. This further supports nature connectedness as a unique concept that is not to be conflated with a greater need for connection with society.

Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

Alongside this, we looked at participant’s preference for living in inner-city areas (typically limited in green spaces) and their history of living in densely populated vs rural areas. The motivation behind this suggests that individuals characterised by dark personalities benefit from residing among others with whom they can easily manipulate and take of advantage of, with the ultimate goal of succeeding in life and establishing themselves in positions of power. We found that those who scored higher in psychopathy showed a preference for residing in inner-city, relative to rural and suburban areas  – although, this did not map onto participants’ residential history. While those who scored higher in psychopathy expressed a preference for inner-city living, they did not report living in more densely populated areas.

Nevertheless, we show nature connectedness appears to be heavily implicated by personality variables which are underpinned by empathic responses to others. Moreover, as such personality traits also predict engagement in deviant and often illegal activities, there presents opportunity to further explore the role of interventions aimed at increasing our levels of nature connectedness in populations at risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

 

Fido, D., Rees, A., Clarke, P., Petronzi, D., & Richardson, M. (2020). Examining the connection between nature connectedness and dark personality. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 72, 101499.

Fido, D., & Richardson, M. (2019). Empathy Mediates the Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Both Callous and Uncaring Traits.Ecopsychology, 11(2).

Passmore, H. A., & Holder, M. D. (2017). Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(6), 537-546.

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