Kids need Connection

MAY 2022

"Accessible nature-focused activities can offer urban children a means of affectively connecting with nature and... inspiring conservation behaviours." - Keith et al 2022.

It is widely acknowledged that we urgently need to find away to fix people's failing relationship with nature. This is most relevant to our current youth who will most bear the effects of the ecological crises in the long-term. They are also the group most likely to from the strongest bonds with nature in their pre-teens but most susceptible to drifting away from nature when they reach adolescence. So this cohort is critical to both understand and to reach.

Keith and colleagues surveyed 1037 children and early adolescents from 16 public schools throughout Sydney, Australia.

Given that connection with nature (as distinct from just 'contact' or' exposure' to nature) is now increasingly recognised as being a prime motivator for pro-environmental behaviour, the researchers wanted to understand the extent that this connectedness - along with environmental identity, i.e. "the extent to which you see yourself as a type of person who acts environmentally-friendly"- might predict pro-nature behaviours in these urban youth. And then identify which activities the stronger connections might be associated with. Key findings include:

* Mere contact or exposure to nature was a weak predictor of the surveyed students' commitment to conservation

* Affective and experiential connection with nature, however, had a large effect on conservation behaviours

* Half of this above effect was mediated by a sense of "environmental self-identity"

* The strength of students' nature connectedness was most strongly predicted by regular engagement in nature-focused activities, learning about nature, and living in a biodiverse home environment

* Nature connectedness increased in strength with the frequency at which students (in order of strength):

(a) regularly looked for wild animals;
(b) went on regular long walks outside;
(c) read about nature in print, and
(d) went outdoors to learn about nature.

 Wildlife watching has also been found in other studies to be a stronger predictor of nature connectedness and this might also help explain why home areas with greater biodiversity support this connection. There is, after all, more varied things to find and notice in one's everyday life.

In summary, the authors emphasised that, "By actively noticing [and seeking out] - as opposed to merely seeing or, worse, ignoring - non human species in urban landscapes, citizens nurture their connections with nature...When observations of nearby nature are mindful, impacts may be stronger still, potentially increasing the likelihood that connectedness will manifest in pro-nature behaviour."

In this respect, some of the simple messaging we've seen from Governments like "getting kids into nature" (e.g.  New South Wales Department of Education, 2018), despite being well-intended, is no guarantee for securing nature connectedness or the pro-environmental behaviours it underpins. This research and numerous other studies show that it is not just contact with nature but the nature of the contact that matters most. More simply, it is about "moments, not minutes" as Prof Miles Richardson, a leading researcher in this field has concluded. [1]

Similarly, the familiar mantra of "we need to educate our children about the environment" also requires nuance. Keith and colleague's research reinforces the importance of ‘embodied' environmental education - it needs to be 'felt'.  The authors found that "students who reported that they learnt about nature often - even from a variety of useful information sources - were not particularly likely to behave in nature-friendly ways unless they also felt connected to nature. Simply knowing about nature was typically not enough to inspire conservation; it was also necessary to care about it."

This aligns with findings of a recent meta-analysis by Barragan-Jason et al (2021) which reviewed 147 studies in the field of environmental education showing that individuals with high nature connectedness had more pro-nature behaviours and were significantly healthier than those with low nature connectedness. Surprisingly, there was no significant effect of environmental education on nature connectedness [2].

So the utility and reach of nature connectedness makes it the ideal medium for interventions designed to ultimately both promote pro-environmental behaviours and wellbeing.  And the thing about nature connectedness - which has its starting point in 'the noticing' - is that it can be accessible irrespective of one's circumstances. Even particular nature-inspired books (e.g. field guides) available at a public library can serve as an entry point.

This kind of research further motivates us and the work we do. Here at NatureFix, we are passionate about cultivating more of "those moments" using our tools to reliably and consistently increase connectedness (as well as contact with nature). To access connectedness we create experiences that help us slow down to notice and absorb the living nature in our midst. It gives us continued hope that these regular moments of connection will grow into a lifelong commitment toward caring for the earth.

Full article: Ryan J. Keith, Lisa M. Given, John M. Martin, Dieter F. Hochuli (2022). Environmental self-identity partially mediates the effects of exposure and connection to nature on urban children's conservation behaviours, Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology, Volume 3,2022.

* Interestingly, gardening and pet (playing/ownership) did not return consistent positive effects on nature connectedness. The authors offer some solid speculation as to why this may be the case, including whether gardening is assigned as a "chore" or not. With respect to pets, children's relationships and interactions with them are complex and can be highly varied. We wonder whether pets can actually be an impediment to noticing wilder nature if they become the focal point of a child's outdoor experiences. Camping, fishing and surfing were also not the 'consistent connectors' we might expect them to be. Again, the spectrum of what might be considered 'camping' and the spectrum of ways people can engage with this and fishing and surfing might explain why. For example, nature connection tends to be stronger with 'biotic' elements (living creatures) than with 'abiotic' elements (waves, landforms).

[1] Prof Miles Richardson (2021) Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship. Posted on March 18, 2021

[2] Barragan-Jason et al (2021). Human–nature connectedness as a pathway to sustainability: A global meta-analysis. Conservation Letters.

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