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.

About Miles

Applied psychologist researching our connection with nature and ways to improve it. Good for nature, good for you.
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