Owing to the benefits to both human and nature’s well-being, and wide spread disconnection, a connection with nature is something many people and organisations are keen to increase. So there is a need to know how best to do this. We’ve already developed specific interventions, such as 3 good things in nature, but our wider framework of effective routes to nature connection has just been published in Plos One. I’m excited about this work is it provides guidance for those seeking to re-connect people with nature, indeed it has been central to much of our recent nature connections work, for example, guiding the type of activities promoted as part of The Wildlife Trusts highly successful 30 Days Wild campaign.
General nature contact and knowledge based activities are often used in an attempt to engage people with nature. However the specific routes to nature connectedness have not been examined systematically, until now. Our latest research has revealed there is a need to go beyond activities that simply engage people with nature through knowledge and identification, to pathways that develop a more meaningful and emotional relationship with nature.
The research started with two online surveys (total n = 321) of engagement with, and valuing of, nature activities structured around the nine values of the Biophila Hypothesis – this provided a useful starting point. The two sets of analyses confirmed that contact, emotion, meaning and compassion, with the latter mediated by engagement with natural beauty, were predictors of connection with nature – explaining an impressive proportion of the variance in nature connectedness. Importantly, knowledge based activities, such as observing nature and increasing understanding, were not related to nature connection. Similarly, purely utilitarian (e.g. growing veg and hunting) and dominionistic activities (e.g. using natural spaces for sport) were not related to nature connection.
So, in more detail the pathways to nature connection are:
- Contact – The act of engaging with nature through the senses for pleasure e.g. listening to birdsong, smelling wild flowers, watching the sunset.
- Beauty – Engagement with the aesthetic qualities of nature, e.g. appreciating natural scenery or engaging with nature through the arts.
- Meaning – Using nature or natural symbolism (e.g. language and metaphors) to represent an idea, thinking about the meaning of nature and signs of nature, e.g. the first swallow of summer.
- Emotion – An emotional bond with, and love for nature e.g. talking about, and reflecting on your feelings about nature.
- Compassion – Extending the self to include nature, leading to a moral and ethical concern for nature e.g. making ethical product choices, being concerned with animal welfare.
In a third study (n = 72), contact, emotion, meaning, compassion and engagement with natural beauty were operationalised in a walking intervention. So, the activities involved things such as having a conversation with others about their thoughts and feelings about the nature around them, writing down the meaning of any symbolism they could infer from the nature they could see, and viewing a short video about creating homes for nature. This intervention was found to significantly increase connection to nature when compared to simply walking in nature – showing simple exposure isn’t enough.
The definitions and research provide pointers to the types of things to do in nature for connection:
- Contact – get out and engage with nature. Use your senses to take a fresh look at trees, touch the bark, smell the pine needles, listen to the wind through the leaves.
- Meaning – consider what nature means to you. What’s your favourite local tree and why? It’s good to have meaning in our lives.
- Compassion – think about what you could do for nature. Why not make a home for nature?
- Emotion – find happiness and wonder in nature. Note the good things in nature, the joy they can bring.
- Beauty – take time to appreciate beauty in nature and try to capture it through art or in words.
The pathways can also be interpreted to provide wider guidance. From interpretation panels to reserve and park design. Rather than focus on the abstractions of nature, the labels of the wildlife people might identify, interpretation panels can suggest the emotions people might feel; or prompt reflection on the beauty and meaning they may find; or suggest the senses they can use to explore this home for nature. Rather than providing a place to sit, provide a place that prompts reflection – it is clear the arts has a great deal to offer in reconnecting people to nature.
Taken together, the three studies show that contact, emotion, meaning, compassion, and beauty are pathways for improving nature connectedness. There is a need to move beyond superficial contact with nature or focussing on knowledge and identification when fostering a relationship with nature – just because citizen science and bioblitz are great for engaging people in conservation, doesn’t mean they foster a closer connection with nature. Of course, there is no need to abandon more knowledge-based activities, an understanding of nature has great value, and such activities will be a first step into nature for some. However, the brain feels before it thinks, so if developing a meaningful connection with nature is your goal, those activities need to be widened to include some of the pathways.
In summary, researchers and practitioners interested in facilitating nature connectedness and its associated benefits should ensure activities involve contact, meaning, emotion, compassion and engaging with nature’s beauty. The pathways also provide alternative values and frames to the traditional knowledge and identification routes often used by organisations when engaging the public with nature. The pathways provide a framework and plenty of ways to make nature part of your life, depending on what works for you. From being out, active and in contact, to reflecting on meaning, there are many ways to make nature part of your everyday being.
Lumber R, Richardson M, Sheffield D (2017) Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177186. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177186