A Guide to Nature

Nature is in decline and there is a need to promote a new relationship with the natural world. A closer relationship based on an emotional attachment where nature has meaning in our lives. Where we sense and appreciate nature’s everyday beauty. Where we develop a compassion for nature.

In Spring last year I was in a nature-based visitor center and was struck by the shelves full of guides to identifying nature. This promotes a certain type of relationship with the natural world. Yet, we know such knowledge of nature isn’t a pathway to connection and is a poor predictor of the pro-nature behaviours we desperately need. However knowledge based relationships with nature are the dominant relationships we promote. When designing a nature engagement experience (especially for children), many will ask about the learning outcomes. Why not learn to develop a closer bond with nature?

Nature connectedness describes an emotional relationship with nature, where we understand that we are part of nature – doing harm to nature is ultimately harming ourselves. Unsurprising then that activities in nature that promote emotions help develop a connection with nature. So, stood looking at the bookshelves I imagined a very different guide, an alternative book to choose. One that challenges our thinking – that flips engagement with nature on its head. Rather than asking what that bird is, ask how it makes you feel.

So, here is that idea brought to life, a thought experiment that might actually work in practice. It could be carefully crafted, a literary experience, compiled from the emotions expressed by nature writers – or from more contemporary submissions. In my example, I’ve used the pathways to nature connection as headers and played with headings typically found in bird guides.

Taking the idea a little further, and building on the simple pleasure of a tick list, I’ve mocked-up an ‘Emotions in Nature Logbook’. The brain feels before it thinks, so this idea provides a prompt to retreat from knowing and identifying nature to spend time simply finding joy and calm within it.

Maintaining the feeling of wonder in nature is important. One of my favourite quotes is:

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Pablo Picasso

What we have as children, we lose in adulthood. Children naturally find wonder in nature, yet we know a connection to nature drops rapidly during teenage years – a time of change, new social pressures and learning outcomes. So let’s try and retain and foster that wonder, through adolescence and into adulthood – because nature matters.



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Nature Connection and the 25 Year Environment Plan

The publication of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan includes policies related to connecting people with nature for wellbeing, urban nature and nature’s beauty – all themes of our nature connections research at the University of Derby. In the foreword Michael Gove notes that the environment is another word for nature, the planet that sustains us, that inspires wonder and places of beauty. The Secretary of State has returned to these themes of emotion and beauty and regularly (last week and in July) and research shows that there are links between them and the often hidden benefits of nature recognised in the plan. This blog considers the policies related to connecting people with nature, urban nature and nature’s beauty.

Connecting people with nature to improve health and wellbeing is one of six key policy areas. The wide-ranging benefits of nature are stated – reducing stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Boosting immune systems, physical activity and pro-social behaviours. The first part of the policy aims to increase time spent in and engagement with nature. Exposure to nature is good for us, but a connection with nature brings it’s own benefits and our research shows the ways to engage with nature to develop this connectedness – and they include those themes of emotion and beauty in nature. You can read more on our pathways to nature connection here – handy as the policy sets out to connect people systematically with nature. These informed our work with The Wildlife Trusts on their 30 Days Wild campaign – our evaluation work over 3 years has shown how tens of thousand of people taking part have become more connected to nature, happier and healthier.

To promote health and wellbeing the 25 year plan includes the launch of a ‘Natural Environment for Health and Wellbeing’ programme that will promote the natural environment as a pathway to wellbeing. The programme will develop tools to reach as many people as possible, with green and social prescriptions. Our work package within the Improving Nature through Urban Wellbeing (IWUN) project includes a smartphone app that will inform approaches to green prescriptions.

The second part of the connecting people with nature policy is focussed on encouraging children to be close to nature, particularly where a child has no access to a garden. The Nature Friendly Schools Programme will help create school grounds that support learning about the natural world and also keep children happy and healthy. Research evidence suggests that knowledge of nature isn’t a pathway to nature connection, so it is important that around the learning there is time to simply sense and make contact with nature, to enjoy its beauty, find meanings and emotions in nature – the themes of nature connection Michael Gove returns to in his speeches, but don’t appear in the policy outlined so far.

The third part of the connecting people with nature policy is about greening towns and cities. The focus here is on increasing and improving green infrastructure. This will include updating standards for green infrastructure and helping local authorities evaluate green spaces against these standards. Through identifying the types of green space that best promote wellbeing, the results of the on-going IWUN project will provide evidence that can inform such standards and our smartphone app Shmapped provides the technology.

Finally, a return to nature’s beauty and a second key policy area – enhancing the beauty of landscapes. It’s great that the inherent beauty of nature is central to the plan and linked to protecting and recovering nature from the losses over the past 50 years. There is a commitment to review Areas of Natural Beauty and the emerging science of the links between nature’s beauty, emotion and wellbeing can add to such reviews through understanding and making plain the links between beauty and the positive impact on the physiology of our bodies when it is experienced. The wellbeing benefits of nature are more significant for those people attuned and engaged with nature’s beauty.

This supports the need to go beyond activities that simply take people into nature, for any purpose, or just for learning. The purpose and activities matter if people are to be engaged with and connected to the natural environment. Now that the health and wellbeing benefits of nature are accepted by Government, there is a need to better understand the science of our connection with nature – after all there’s a disconnection at the root of the declining state of nature.




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Nature Knowledge or Nature Connection: Which accounts best for Pro-Environmental Behaviours?

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.

Connectedness is nature better understood.

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.





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Trees, wood, roses and mood across the seasons: Time for a Nature Connection Research Round-up

There have been several interesting research papers published recently, this blog takes a brief look at six of them. We start with trees and children’s play, briefly consider “Millennials” before moving on to the physiological responses to trees and roses, and our emotional regulation. A theme which continues across the seasons and ends considering time itself.

Soon after my previous blog on affordances and sense of place, a second paper on affordances was published. Laaksoharju’s paper explores urban children’s relationship with trees and how their connectedness to place evolves. The study showed how the use of trees becomes more varied over time, the trees offering multiple and intriguing opportunities for play (e.g. climbing and den building) that met the children’s social and private needs. The recommendations are straightforward, for natural spaces with trees that are available to connect with – only then can affordances and meaningful relationships with nature emerge. Trees can be the main attraction in playgrounds and should be considered during the planning and positioning of children’s playgrounds and green spaces more generally – the more diverse the vegetation the more diverse the affordances and experiences for the children. A tree is not a tree, rather a pathway towards nature connection.

A fallen tree affords play

A lack of tree access and nature connectedness is a possible factor at the root of the issues highlighted in another paper on “Millennials”. The paper by Metz states that this generational group born between 1982 and 2001 spend decreased time outdoors alongside more time using technology, and demonstrate higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy which may impact the overall functioning of these individuals. I’ve considered such research before and clearly there are a wide variety of relationships with nature that exist within that generation, however Metz uses the snapshot to highlight the importance of bringing nature, and nature connectedness, into everyone’s lives – it is important for children and adults, both younger and older. We all share a capacity to develop a meaningful connection with nature and a physiology that benefits from contact with nature.

Simply Viewing Roses Calms

Returning to trees, my July 17 blog post on forest bathing showed how spending time with trees impacts our health within the context of a ‘3 Circles’ model of the operation of our nervous system and resulting emotional regulation. A new paper by Ikei and colleagues was published over the summer which demonstrated that the same physiological responses can be gained from simply touching wood. In the study, people placed their palm on un-treated white oak, marble, tile and stainless steel with their eyes closed for 90 seconds. As with forest bathing, touching the wood led to greater parasympathetic nervous activity, indicating physiological relaxation. A further paper involving the same researchers’ shows similar physiological responses can also come from simply viewing an image of roses for 3 minutes. This time a reduction sympathetic nervous activity. The response to forest bathing, touching wood and viewing roses can all be explained using the 3 Circles model, which also helps us understand how and why nature is beneficial – you can more about the 3 Circles model in my July blog.

3 Circles Model of emotion regulation

Next, we move on to the link between emotional regulation and mood and a paper just published by Brooks and colleagues on nature-related mood effects and the seasons. This paper shows that the emotional benefits of nature are present still present in the winter, and that although both are beneficial, as indicated by the rose’s study, actual nature is more effective than pictures of nature. The research compared walks inside and outside in winter, photos of urban and nature scenes in winter, and actual and pictorial nature contact. Measures of positive affect, stress, depression and anxiety, clinically relevant emotions, were taken. The results showed that brief 10 minute exposure to nature benefits mood, and that this doesn’t need to involve exercise.

Children by a Winter’s Tree

Finally, a brief mention of a paper by Davydenko et al who considered the impact of nature on the perception of time. Through asking people to estimate the duration of a walk, they found that experiences in nature can feel longer than the same experience in a man-made environment. As above, the nature walk also led to an improvement in mood when compared to the urban walk.

I’ve written before that nature connection isn’t about turning back time to halcyon days – it’s about the here and now, slowing down time, taking a moment to view the roses, touch and be with the trees, be it winter, summer or fall. This can be active, or reflective, children at play or adults at rest. The case is simple, spending time with nature feels good, feels longer, means more and impacts on our physiology, balancing our emotions, holding our heart steady.



Laaksoharju, T., & Rappe, E. (2017). Trees as affordances for connectedness to place–a model to facilitate children’s relationship with nature. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening.

Metz, A. L. Back to Nature: The Relationship Between Nature Relatedness on Empathy and Narcissism in the Millennial Generation.

Ikei, H., Song, C., & Miyazaki, Y. (2017). Physiological effects of touching wood. International journal of environmental research and public health14(7), 801.

Song, C., Igarashi, M., Ikei, H., & Miyazaki, Y. (2017). Physiological effects of viewing fresh red roses. Complementary Therapies in Medicine.

Brooks, A. M., Ottley, K. M., Arbuthnott, K. D., & Sevigny, P. (2017). Nature-related mood effects: Season and type of nature contact. Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Davydenko, M., & Peetz, J. (2017). Time grows on trees: The effect of nature settings on time perception. Journal of Environmental Psychology54, 20-26.



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Nature Connection: A fast, slow and portable Sense of Place

Research into sense of place, like nature connectedness, has grown rapidly in resent years and there are meaningful connections between the two to be explored. A sense of place is broadly about human connection to places, nature connectedness is about human connection to nature. Clearly, those places can be natural, and nature connectedness can perhaps be seen as a portable sense of place – found within every woodland or wherever the good things in nature gather.

Like nature connectedness, place attachment includes emotional bonds and meaning. As research into sense of place has an emphasis on meaning and attachment, it is typically seen as ‘slow’ to evolve and enduring, but not static owing to the various social and lifespan factors involved. Similarly, nature connectedness varies across the lifespan, but can also be increased through interventions such as 30 Days Wild or noting 3 Good Things in Nature. Attachment to place has often been modelled as a relationship between the separate entities of the place and human minds, with a person’s sense of place driven by external factors. Whereas a perspective based on meaning involves an extended human mind and more experiential factors.

Once again, nature connectedness can be seen from similar perspectives, indeed I wrote about the phenomenological perspective of Merleau-Ponty in a 2014 blog post. Merleau-Ponty highlighted the interconnection between the perceived and perceiver – how we are embedded in the landscape, our body is “the vehicle of being in the world”. We’ve started to explore this embeddedness in the natural environment in our review of nature as a new paradigm for well-being. This philosophy moves us away from a goal-directed focus to a holistic worldview. I’ve written before of a view of human health based on a ‘biopsychophysis’, where health depends on biological, psychological and natural environment factors – reflecting a ‘mind-body-nature connection’. Rather than the biomedical model that sees health as deviation from ‘normal’ within the individual, the emphasis becomes a wider and dynamic relationship that includes nature. This interconnectedness provides a more realistic model of well-being, sense of place, nature connectedness – because ultimately that’s how life on Earth is.

An interesting paper by Raymond and colleagues on sense of place published a couple of weeks ago discusses the sense of place research and introduces the potential contributions of ‘affordance theory’. I found this particularly exciting as affordance theory is a key part of my background in ergonomics and human factors, and the more I delve into nature connectedness, the more I find links to the models that underpin this primarily workplace based discipline. A discipline that essentially considers people and their relationship to objects, places, environments – and why not nature? Traditionally ergonomics, in common with much Western thinking, has focussed on interfaces and boundaries to the disembodied self, yet we understand more and more that people are indivisible from their surroundings.

Affordance is a term coined by the psychologist James J. Gibson and it refers originally to the complementarity between person and environment, what the environment offers and provides for ‘good or ill’. It is now commonly seen in terms of the possibilities for action suggested by the environment – a handle affords holding for example, a stick affords sword fighting, pooh sticks and much more! Affordances are direct perception-action processes that don’t involve thinking; all of the information is available within the environment so no instruction is needed. Affordances also support the interconnection between the perceived and perceiver – how we are embedded in the landscape. There are also suggestions that affordance and affect (emotion) can be integrated – intriguing given nature connectedness is affective and the benefits of nature include balancing our emotional regulation system.

A stick

So, like emotions, meaningful behaviours can come directly via perception without thought. Clearly, such a direct perception-action process is ‘fast’, the environment can provide immediate meaning, and meaning is part of a sense of place, and nature connectedness. This opens up the possibility that there can be more immediate pathways to developing a sense of place, or nature connectedness.

In their paper, Raymond et al, go on to suggest how affordance theory can potentially fill blind spots in sense of place research. One of these blind spots being that sense of place research tends to focus on social construction of place attachment from a broadly cognitive perspective, or place meaning from an inductive perspective. The authors note how sense of place can be seen to be generated from being able to ‘read’ the landscape, language, culture, activities and deep emotional ties. Sometimes these higher order approaches of cognition, attitudes, beliefs, social aspects and cultural angles neglect the more direct and simple perception of the environment and its many potential affordances – some of which an individual might not perceive owing to their own physical capabilities or cultural factors.

Returning to nature connectedness research, our pathways model suggests a hierarchy (and fast and slow aspects), from simply sensing nature, to finding emotion, beauty, meaning and ultimately compassion. There are also parallels between being able to ‘read the landscape’ and traditional attempts to engage people with nature through knowledge, being able to read the natural world.

The need for sense of place to consider immediate meaning via the senses, extends into how meaning develops from sensing the environment and individual differences. So a sense of place is formed from the features of the place, experiences within the place and the individual’s social/demographic characteristics. This includes immediate perception of those features and a dynamic interconnectedness between the features and the individual – nature connectedness and sense of place doesn’t just happen in the head!

This perspective could also inform the design of environments to afford meaning, sense of place, or nature connectedness. It is interesting to note at this point that research suggests some people, and children, might need inviting into activities in order to realise potential affordances the environment offers – what can be done with a stick for example. Designing such places needs creative thinking and exploration, but there is a framework to stimulate that thinking. For nature connection we need to afford reflection – a place to pause and perceive – close to features that stimulate using the senses, noticing beauty and resulting emotions. Such places can foster immediate and sustained relationships that bring meaning through function and experiences. Such creative thinking can draw upon the arts and include accessible activities such that meaning and memories can be formed.

The paper on sense of place and affordances has helped extend my thinking on the dimensions of nature connectedness. How nature connection can also be fast and slow. Nature can prompt immediate moments of connection – we can find meaning and emotion before we stop to think, but also when we pause to reflect. And these moments bring two dimensions of emotion, both joy and calm. And that emotional balance brings two dimensions of well-being, feeling good and functioning well.




Raymond, C., Kyttä, M. and Stedman, R. (2017). Sense of Place, Fast and Slow: The Potential Contributions of Affordance Theory to Sense of Place. Front. Psychol.


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A Passion for Nature: from Obsession to Harmony

A couple of recent research papers have caught my eye. The first paper looks at outdoor activities, emotions and two types of passion for nature – important as one is associated with a greater connection with nature, the second relates to decreased connection. Clearly, as we look to improve nature connection, knowing the best forms of relationship is key. The second paper is about the rapid increase in nature connection research over recent years.

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Looking back on Nature Connections 2017 – Beyond contact with nature to connection

The Nature Connections 2018 conference at the University of Derby last month was the third in a series which grows as the relevance of the natural environment to everyday lives becomes increasingly accepted owing to the links to our environmental attitudes, behaviours and wellbeing. We started by reminding ourselves of the fundamentals, that nature connection is an established and measurable psychological construct and that it can be improved through affective and sensory activities (rather than cognitive and knowledge based activities). Of course, there is a need to get research evidence across, so after a burst of knowledge based talks, Mark Cocker ably returned us to the affective and sensory delights of the natural world.

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