Climate change and biodiversity loss suggests a failing relationship between people and the rest of nature. There is a need for a new and sustainable relationship, one that benefits the natural world, but can also benefit human well-being. Given the apparent benefits to well-being and the influence on pro-nature behaviours, nature connectedness is emerging as an important construct that can help develop a more sustainable relationship with the natural world. Importantly, nature connectedness is defined, can be measured and increased through large-scale campaigns. Our latest paper in the journal Sustainability reports on our new population measure of nature connectedness (the NCI) and the insights it has provided. This blog provides a brief summary.
With the need for a new human relationship with the rest of nature and growing interest in a policy context (e.g. the 25YEP), population measures of nature connectedness are needed. Although a range of measures for nature connectedness are available, none of these measures would be suitable for use in a national survey context due to the number, length, and complexity of item wording. Nor are these measures suitable for use with both adults and children, which would be necessary to allow patterns across the lifespan to be monitored and offer the potential for longitudinal research. To meet the need for population level data on nature connectedness, a collaboration of partners developed a short, simple measure suitable for use with both children and adults. The new measure, the Nature Connection Index (NCI), was developed and tested through use in the existing omnibus survey the MENE survey, which has accredited National Statistic status in the UK.
During development of the Nature Connectedness Index (NCI) item selection considered people’s affective and experiential relationship with nature. A framework to inform the item themes within the NCI was provided by the pathways to nature connectedness: emotion, beauty, contact, meaning and compassion. A weighted points index was developed so that the index ran from zero to a maximum score of 100 in line with expectations for a national indicator approach. This improved dispersion, producing more even percentiles and differentiation in the middle range. A spreadsheet that converts raw scores to the weighted index is avialable via the link below. More detail of the development process is available in the paper.
The six items of the NCI (answered on a 7-point response scale, “completely agree” to “completely disagree”) – full PDF version with scoring spreadsheet:
1—I always find beauty in nature
2—I always treat nature with respect
3—Being in nature makes me very happy
4—Spending time in nature is very important to me
5—I find being in nature really amazing
6—I feel part of nature
The MENE data included responses from 3568 adults aged 16 to 95 years (mean age was 49.98 years; SD = 20.05; 1826 female respondents and 1742 male respondents) and 351 children aged 7 to 15 years with 177 female respondents and 174 males. Females scored significantly higher (64.21, SD = 27.36) than males (57.96, SD = 28.08). The mean NCI for the non-Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population was 60.60 (SD = 27.81; n = 2761) and 63.06 (SD = 28.06; n = 807) for the BAME population.
The data revealed the NCI worked as a measure of nature connectedness for both children and adults and revealed some key insights. Firstly, the mean level across the population (61) and a sharp dip in connection with nature into the teenage years, with a slow recovery to the adult population mean at around 30 years old – see the chart below. This is significant as a great deal of focus is on children’s disconnect from nature, we now know when that begins and how long the recovery takes.
The size and suddenness of the drop in levels of nature connectedness from 10 to 15 years of age is notable. Although cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal, it seems likely that the profile represents developmental changes or situational factors, rather than transitory events affecting children born between the years 2000 and 2008. Adolescence is a time of many developmental changes, the development of self-identity and the emotional regulation required for successful social relationships. The self is a key aspect of nature connectedness and lower nature connectedness is related to difficulties in emotional regulation. Identity formation sees childhood characteristics merge with emerging adolescent traits, and is theorized to consist of a series of stages alongside coping with, for example, physical growth, group acceptance, love, and career choices. It may be that during this time, nature and one’s connection with nature, may lose relevance and importance. We know that greater interest in the self, e.g. through ‘selfie taking’ is linked to lower nature connectedness. At a time of disconnect, perhaps schools should be sharing the 5 Ways to Natural Well-being and how moving beyond ones self and tapping into the secret network of nature can help manage emotions in order to feel good and function well. With the added bonus of bringing about increases in pro-nature behaviours.
Moving on to situational factors, children within the UK sample are also subject to external changes, such as the move from a primary to secondary school environment. This transition matches the timing of the drop in nature connectedness well. At secondary school there is a swift focus on GCSE grades and the ‘core’ academic subjects such as English, maths and science. Science can bring about an abstraction of nature as its parts become labels, functional units within processes to be learnt. Research shows that a science and knowledge based relationship with nature is not a pathway to connectedness. Nature, and critically the human relationship with it, needs to be core within the curriculum, through science, humanities and the arts. Finally, outside of school, children change their use and requirements of nature and natural spaces as they grow older. For example, natural environments such as woodlands can provide opportunities for developing a sense of identity, but this is can be poorly understood and tolerated by the local community, landowners and managers.
Further research is required to identify the factors found to be associated with the adolescent disconnect. This will inform efforts to prevent the decline or facilitate re-connection. Such efforts to improve nature connectedness can be based on activities that operationalise the pathways to nature connectedness, such as our ‘3 Good Things in Nature’ intervention. It has been found nature connectedness can be increased by including affective elements in outdoor education programs (Braun & Dierkes, 2017), whereas a more traditional outdoors adventure program did not increase nature connectedness (Williams et al., 2018). The drop in nature connectedness cannot be solely addressed by occasional education programs though, given the climate emergency the solution needs to be a core and everyday topic delivered within greener school grounds designed to create habitats for connection. Given the recent school strikes for climate regular follow-up surveys can help track changes in the profile across the lifespan.
The research also provides insight into how strong nature connectedness needs to be to deliver the pro-environmental benefits required for a sustainable future. The table below shows the most straightforward behavior, recycling, is associated with a relatively modest NCI of 63, just above the population mean. Whereas the NCI of the 5% of people giving up their time to volunteer to help the environment is 76. The correlation between percentage of participation in the ten behaviors and the NCI of those participating was 0.97. This suggests that the behaviors requiring greater commitment (resulting in less participation) are strongly associated with greater NCI.
Differences between yes and no responses were all significant – meaning those involved in pro-environmental behaviours have a significantly closer connection with nature. Finally, those that strongly agree with the statement “I am concerned about damage to the natural environment” scored a mean NCI of 76. Finally, those with the maximum NCI score of one hundred were significantly happier, more satisfied with life, and less anxious, than those scoring below the maximum.
In sum, the research found the NCI to be a reliable and valid scale that offers a short, simple alternative to other measures of nature connectedness, particularly for populations including both children and adults, measured face to face or online. The utility of the NCI for exploring key issues for a sustainable future is also supported by the associations with various pro-environmental behaviors. Importantly, the NCI also provides a tool that can be used to reveal changes in nature connectedness across the lifespan. With the critical global issues of climate change and biodiversity loss symptomatic of human disconnection with nature, there is a growing interest in understanding and improving people’s connection to nature. As always more research is required, but time is tight. For now the data suggests a mean NCI above 70 is a minimum required to help deliver a sustainable future. That’s at least 15% above the current mean level of 61, with a 25% increase to 76 associated with the meaningful attitudes and behaviours that would make a sustainable future more acceptable and likely. Increases of this magnitude have been delivered (using the NCI and other measures) through 30 Days Wild, the engagement campaign run each June by the Wildlife Trusts. This approach delivers the best results for those that start out with lower nature connectedness, but they are less likely to take part. With the right approach, nature connectedness can be increased, but ways to reach none nature lovers are urgently needed.
Project partners: Natural England, Historic England, National Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and The Wildlife Trusts.
Richardson, M., Hunt, A., Hinds, J., Bragg, R., Fido, D., Petronzi, D. Barbett, L., Clitherow, T. and White, M. (2019). A Measure of Nature Connectedness for Children and Adults: Validation, Performance, and Insights. Sustainability. 11(12), 3250; https://doi.org/10.3390/su11123250