Does connecting in your childhood to nature has benefits?

With more and more children growing up in cities, one could wonder if it’s a bad thing if they lose their connection to nature.  A new review study shows a positive effect on average, but as always: it’s a bit more complicated.

From the press release:

The review, published in the British Ecological Society Journal People and Nature, is the first to focus on nature connection in children and adolescents. In the article Dr Chawla comprehensively reviews the full scope of literature on the topic, covering peer-reviewed articles, books and studies by environmental organizations.

The review finds that connecting with nature supports multiple areas of young people’s wellbeing. “There is strong evidence that children are happier, healthier, function better, know more about the environment, and are more likely to take action to protect the natural world when they spend time in nature.” said Dr Chawla.

Several studies found that children’s connection with nature increased with time spent in natural environments. Time spent in this way was also a predictor for active care for nature in adulthood. These findings support strategies and policies that ensure that young people have access to wild areas, parks, gardens, green neighborhoods, and naturalized grounds at schools.

However, a connection with nature is not universally positive. “My review shows that connecting with nature is a complex experience that can generate troubling emotions as well as happiness.” said Dr Chawla.

“We need to keep in mind that children are inheriting an unravelling biosphere, and many of them know it. Research shows that when adolescents react with despair, they are unlikely to take action to address challenges.”

Thankfully the review finds that there is overlap in the strategies used to increase children’s feelings of connection with nature and supporting them with difficult dimensions of this connection.

These strategies include helping young people learn what they can do to protect the natural world, as individuals and working collectively with others, and sharing examples of people who care for nature. Research covered in the review finds that young people are more likely to believe a better world is possible when friends, family and teachers listen sympathetically to their fears and give them a safe space to share their emotions.

One of the most surprising findings from the review was the complete disconnect between researchers studying the benefits of childhood connection to nature and those studying responses to environmental threats. “People who study children’s connection with nature and those who study their coping with environmental risk and loss have been pursuing separate directions without referencing or engaging with each other.” said Dr Chawla. “I am arguing that researchers on both sides need to be paying attention to each other’s work and learning from each other”.

Abstract of the review:

Within a generation, children’s lives have largely moved indoors, with the loss of free‐ranging exploration of the nearby natural world, even as research indicates that direct experiences of nature in childhood contribute to care for nature across the life span.

In response, many conservation organizations advocate connecting children with nature, and there has been rising interest in measuring young people’s connectedness with nature, understanding how it relates to their well‐being and stewardship behaviour and creating programs to increase connection.

This article reviews the literature on these topics, covering both quantitative and qualitative studies. It notes that this research emphasizes positive experiences and emotions, even as global environmental changes and biodiversity loss accelerate.

Young people’s emotions of worry, frustration and sadness as they learn about environmental degradation also express their understanding that they are connected to the biosphere. Therefore this review includes research on how young people cope with information about large‐scale environmental problems, and it identifies practices to sustain hope.

The review concludes by suggesting how research on connection with nature and coping with environmental change can benefit from integration.

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