How strong does a child’s connection to nature need to be for pro-nature behaviours?

People’s connection with the rest of nature matters not just because it helps us feel good and function well – it matters because of the links to nature’s well-being. In my previous blog I wrote that the risks posed by biodiversity loss are on the same scale as those of climate change – 80% of mammals have been lost since the dawn of human civilisation and now humans and livestock make up 96% of mammals on Earth (Bar-On et al. 2018), yet 68% of the UK population is unaware or unconcerned about biodiversity loss (Defra, 2016). Clearly there is a need for pro-nature conservation behaviours in addition to pro-environmental behaviours. In some on-going work with a range of colleagues it has been found that nature connectedness is a strong predictor of pro-conservation and environment behaviours, but what level of nature connectedness is required? Our recent paper with RSPB Science published in the Journal for Nature Conservation sets out to identify a meaningful threshold in children – it’s available open access until 18th Sept 2018.

A widely held view is that children are now deprived of contact with nature and are disconnected and there is a focus on re-connecting children because we rely on the current generation of children for future conservation action. However, more clarity is required about how to define a connected child and how this relates to conservation behaviours. This helps inform activities and evaluation of projects in order to demonstrate effective use of limited conservation resources. So, the research had two aims. Aim 1) to determine an objective scale of connection to nature, as measured by the Connection to Nature Index. Aim 2) to examine the relationship between our level of connection and self-reported conservation behaviours among children.

Aim 1 involved detailed analysis of the CNI scale, firstly investigating the distribution of all possible CNI scores for the 4845 combinations of responses to the 16 items. For the second step, the relationship between overall CNI scores and frequency of positive responses (Agree /Strongly Agree) to each of the 16 items was examined. The following criteria were proposed: low connection was when negative/neutral answers were predominant; mild connection to nature would be demonstrated by a child giving positive responses more frequently (at least nine positive responses), and strong connection was defined as when a child responded “Strongly Agree” most frequently (at least nine times). Studying the frequency of positive answers in any individual CNI response showed that CNI scores of up to 4.00 can be obtained by answering positively to only 50% of the questions. A CNI score of 4.50 required at least eight responses at “Strongly agree”. Ultimately, results of the analysis suggested that that low connection results in a CNI score of 1 to around 4.06, mild connection is around 4.06, rising to strong connection at around 4.56.

For Aim 2) we set out to test this. We used real data from 775 children aged 10-11, in 15 schools in the UK. The children were asked to respond to the CNI and to 13 questions about their pro-conservation and environmental behaviours. Probability data on children’s behaviours was used to classify the likelihood of positive action and Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) curves and Area Under the Curve (AUC) were calculated in order to determine CNI thresholds that might discriminate between children more and less likely to act positively for conservation. The sample of children had a median CNI score of 4.06 and mean of 4.00 – therefore the majority of children were positioned around low and mild connection. Encouragingly, the ROC analysis showed that the CNI had good ability to differentiate between those more likely to act positively for conservation or not. In sum, analysis around the suggested threshold of 4.56 correctly classified the majority with low probabilities as more poorly connected and, therefore, provides a good target for CNI scores in children.

So, the real data supports current perceptions of a general disconnection from nature within young people with 46% of children having a low connection (scores below 4.06) and only 18% a strong connection (over 4.56). In comparison, children who were members of a wildlife group or present at nature reserves are known to have a mean CNI score of 4.41 indicating mild to strong connection (Bragg et al., 2013). Encouragingly, the children displayed the expected positive relationship between CNI score and the probability of carrying out pro-conservation behaviours supporting the idea that activities that connect children to nature are critical for conservation success. Of course those connection activities need to be evidence-based to work (e.g. Richardson, Cormack, et al., 2016; Richardson & Sheffield, 2017), moving beyond traditional activities focussed on knowledge and identification of nature to develop a more meaningful relationship (Lumber, Richardson, & Sheffield, 2017).  This research work has implications for programmes that seek to facilitate pro-conservation and environment behaviours, it demonstrates the importance of fostering a connection with nature through an evidence-based approach. The CNI scale, along with thresholds, will also be useful in the assessment of population baselines and evaluating the progress programmes make.



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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