A fundamental component of environmental education, and a traditional aspect of nature engagement is environmental knowledge. Knowledge of nature is seen as being indispensable to the promotion of sustainable behaviour – surely to know is to care?
A recent research paper studied children’s environmental education and the resulting environmental knowledge and nature connectedness. Research shows that the link between environmental knowledge and behaviour is weak, hence the work of Otto & Pensini aimed to include the role of nature connectedness. Moving beyond knowledge to connection has been a theme of several of my blog posts (here and here for example) and our recent research shows that knowledge is not a route to nature connection. There’s also a poor relationship between nature knowledge and nature connection.
Nature connection provides the all-important intrinsic motivation for adopting a more ecological lifestyle – when connected, harming nature is harming one’s self! Otto & Pensini note that a connection with nature is perhaps the strongest predictor of ecological behaviour – as a single construct it has been found to out perform all other variables. Yet they note that fostering nature connectedness is not a common feature of environmental education.
In the research, data from 255 children aged 9-11 was gathered. Measures were participation in environmental education, ecological behaviour, environmental knowledge and nature connectedness. The statistical analysis revealed two stark figures.
Despite careful checks on the measure, environmental knowledge explained only 2% of the variance in ecological behaviour. Nature connectedness explained 69%. It was also found that nature-based environmental education increased knowledge by fostering nature connectedness and in this instance the education had a similar effect on both knowledge and connectedness, but clearly nature connection brought the greatest rewards in terms of ecological behaviours.
The research provides strong evidence that environmental education should be nature based, bringing nature knowledge through a focus on nature connection in order to bring pro-nature behaviours. In sum, our focus needs to shift from knowledge to connection. However, the most common challenge I receive when delivering sessions on connecting with nature through developing an affective relationship is that developing knowledge is the key. Our knowledge-based relationship with nature is deeply embedded – we like to identify, name and classify nature in order to understand.
Scientific knowledge is important, (I’m a scientist), but the evidence shows that connectedness and emotional relationship with nature matter. Efforts to engage people with nature are often based on knowledge and identification – we’re driven to know, to understand, be smarter, to walk further, to run faster, to climb, to cross, to conquer – and to consume. Whereas connecting with nature can start with less purposeful activities, simply sensing nature, noticing its beauty and the emotions evoked. These can develop into deeper explorations of the meaning we find in nature as we develop compassion for nature. Science is about understanding nature, but connection is nature better understood.
Otto, S., & Pensini, P. (2017). Nature-based environmental education of children: Environmental knowledge and connectedness to nature, together, are related to ecological behaviour. Global Environmental Change, 47, 88-94.