Connecting Children with Nature: By Nature Trails and Learning or through Art?

The main focus of my research is finding the best ways to connect people with nature, because it’s good for nature’s and human wellbeing. As the interest in our connection to nature is relatively recent, most of the previous research has been aimed at understanding its benefits – for example, we now know a connection to nature predicts wellbeing to a similar extent as established factors such as income and education. Research on the types of activity that best increase nature connection is now emerging, and this post focuses ‘Getting to know nature’ by Bruni and colleagues – published a few weeks ago in Environmental Education Research. The paper evaluates the effects of three activities on children’s nature connectedness. These activities were part of a ‘Get to Know Nature’ program.

One study of three in the paper focussed on a 45-minute outdoor nature trail using an activity map that directed visitors to clues in order to find impression stations where the children created rubbings of plants and animals – I’ve done several of these with my children. The trails were designed to provide time in nature while learning about the environment. Children were rewarded for completing all the clue solutions. The impact of this on the connection to nature of 35 school children was evaluated using the Implicit Association Test, completed pre and post trail on the same day. Analysis showed no increase in connection to nature.

On a nature trail

On a nature trail

A second study considered a 30-minute ‘virtual hike’ where children explored trails online looking for various plants and animals. Once located, video and audio provided information about the species. 50 children took part and connection to nature was measured using the Implicit Association Test immediately before and after. Analysis showed no increase in connection to nature.

A third study in the paper considered a ‘Creative Arts Contest’ where children were encouraged to gain inspiration from nature-based sources and incorporate them into a variety of artistic projects, from writing and photography, to painting, drawing and sculpture. The time spent in nature varied, but was many hours over a month and submissions were entered into a contest for publication in a calendar. The specific nature experiences and time involved over the month long project were not recorded, but the submissions included 67 artworks, 61 written pieces and 36 photos. Bruni and colleagues evaluated the impact of this on the connection to nature of 178 school children, measured again using the Implicit Association Test. Connection to nature was measured before the project and one month later immediately after submission. There was no follow-up to test for sustained changes. The changes in connection to nature scores were significantly higher for children who submitted an artwork, compared to those who did not. The results suggest that active participation and the creation of artworks increased children’s connection to nature.


Nature as Inspiration for Art

So, overall, the results suggest that being outdoors, learning about the environment, being distracted by clues and pursuing marked stations on a nature trail is not a great pathway to increased connection to nature. Likewise a computer-based educational hike learning about animals and plants isn’t either. Engaging with nature through the arts however did increase children’s connection to nature, although owing to the design we don’t know if both writing and producing artworks led to this (we’ve found writing ‘3 good things in nature’ each day works for adults and are currently doing a follow-up study with children).

Nature Writing

Nature Writing

These results fit nicely our own research findings that have found that a connection to nature isn’t related to knowledge of nature, rather it comes through finding meaning in nature; experiencing emotions in nature such as happiness and wonder; having compassion for nature; making contact with nature and appreciating nature’s beauty. When creating nature-based artwork we must make contact with nature, find and express emotion and find meaning – which can bring about compassion for nature.

As noted in my previous blog post, Gregory Bateson saw remedies for disconnection from nature in the arts and aesthetics, with conscious purpose (as found in nature trails) separating us from nature.

Nature trails are a good way of getting children (and their parent’s) out into nature, but the message is to think carefully how they promote, or hinder contact with nature. Rather than conveying knowledge and hunting clues make the perception of nature central – signpost joy and wonder; emotion and beauty; and experiencing nature with the senses. Rather than finding a series of marker stations, find other reasons to pause and engage the senses with nature, and provide places to reflect.



Bruni, C. M., Winter, P. L., Schultz, P. W., Omoto, A. M., & Tabanico, J. J. (2015). Getting to know nature: evaluating the effects of the Get to Know Program on children’s connectedness with nature. Environmental Education Research, 1-20.




About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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6 Responses to Connecting Children with Nature: By Nature Trails and Learning or through Art?

  1. Dr Simon Bignell says:

    A great blog post. Art and a connection to nature seems a perfect combination. Getting kids in touch with the beauty nature provides makes sense.

  2. Agree with what you say, but wonder whether the fact that the art projects took place for “many hours over a month” made a difference. Repeat engagement is so important to build a relationship with nature.

    • Miles says:

      Yep, it probably did, just the one study and that will be a key factor, but there’s other indications that the arts are a good way to get contact and an emotional connection. Not enough research into this though.

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