It is easy to assume that any time spent in nature fosters a connection between children and the rest of the natural world. I myself have carried that assumption for many years. However, as I witnessed my young daughter in her first explorations of the natural world, I became increasingly aware that certain types of encounters seemed to engender a more lasting impression than others. I was curious. Had any studies addressed this topic?
As I began to poke around, I found a highly informative paper out of Sweden, the result of a study conducted by researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Center, the Swedish University of Agricultural Studies and Kristianstad University College. The goal was to establish a framework through which natural spaces could be evaluated to determine whether or not they successfully foster a human-nature connection in children.
The researchers involved respected the interconnection of mind, body, culture and environment. Consequently, when talking about a significant connection to nature, these researchers were looking for an embodied connection, an embodied sense of being part of an ecosystem.
The researchers also noted two trends in recent literature about human-nature-connection (HNC) that highlight the importance of fostering this connection in children. First, pro-environmental choices and actions are grounded in our beliefs and values (not surprisingly). Second, a profound human-nature-connection starts with direct interaction with nature in childhood and remains strong into adulthood. The researchers note that these two trends combine to highlight the significant relationship between fostering a connection to nature in children and the development of a socio-ecological system that is sustainable into the future. In order to move human society towards a positive, sustainable relationship with nature it is therefore essential that we consider the availability of spaces and experiences that help children connect to the natural world from a very young age.
To identify criteria essential in fostering a human-nature-connection in youngsters, the researchers worked with professionals from around the globe already working with young people in nature. Together, the researchers and professionals sought to answer the following questions:
- What are the qualities of significant nature situations?
- What constitutes children’s human-nature connection?
- How do qualities of significant nature situations and children’s human-nature connection relate to each other over time?
Three different types of connection to nature were noted. “Being in nature” is a form of relationship in which children are comfortable in natural spaces and curious about nature. “Being with nature” is a form of relationship involving young people’s ability to act in natural spaces, feel attached to nature, read and know about the natural world and recall formative memories made in nature. Finally, “being for nature” is a relationship in which young people recognize both their impact on and interconnection with the natural world and begin to care for and about and feel one with the rest of the natural world. To establish a relationship with the natural world that accurately reflects the truth of our interconnection, all three forms of relationship are essential, with the last of most significant importance.
Ultimately, the study identified 16 qualities of human-nature interactions that, to varying identified degrees, help connect children to nature. These qualities include, in descending order of importance:
- Engagement of the senses
- Awe inspiring
- Involving physical activity
- Creative expression
- Involvement of mentors
- Social/cultural endorsement
- Involvement of animals
While illuminating, this list is perhaps not surprising. For anyone who has spent time observing children in nature, it makes sense that activities and spaces that allow for maximum engagement of the senses, are unstructured and driven by the children, give ample encouragement for feelings of awe, and involve physical activity while being thought-provoking are the activities and spaces most likely to foster a deep sense of connection to the natural world.
Additionally, when we consider that what we are talking about is really providing the space and type of experiences most likely to help young people settle into the truths of our interconnection with the rest of the natural world, we realize that what we are talking about are spaces and experiences in which young people can notice, interact with and absorb teachings from the natural world itself. These types of spaces and interactions are therefore bound to be less-structured, defined by a sense of awe, provoke thought and reflection, open the senses and allow children the freedom to follow their curiosity.
Reading the results of the study and reflecting on the list of important qualities was a great reminder for me in considering the time I spend in nature with my children. I’ve also found it a powerful reminder for how I approach my own connection to the natural world and, in turn, model that connection for my children. From our tradition of “wonder walks” to finding time to just sit in the woods and watch and reflect on what we see, to stepping aside and letting my children drive our inquiries into the natural world rather than worrying about teaching them the name of every tree we see, it’s been illuminating to reorient our time outside towards making space to fall in love with and be taught directly by the world with which we are already intimately connected, whether we realize it or not.