People who connect with nature are happier, and children who connect with nature are more prosocial and better-behaved. How can we help our families feel a greater sense of connectedness?
You already know that kids benefit when they play outdoors. They also reap special benefits when they spend time in nature. We all do. And research suggests it isn't just a matter of spending time -- of being there, being physically present.
Read more about it in my article, "Kids who feel connected with nature are happier -- and better-behaved."
But here, let's focus on the practicalities. What can we do to help our families feel a greater sense of connectedness to nature?
The evidence is pretty consistent. Adults who feel strongly connected with nature are more likely to have experienced lots of contact with nature as children. And research suggests that kids find it easier to forge a connection with nature when they are younger -- i.e., before the age of 10 or 11 (Bruni and Schultz 2010; Leiflander et al 2013).
If you live in the city -- or lack access to a private backyard or garden -- you might feel that "visiting nature" means traveling to a major attraction. But should you wait around until you have the opportunity to make such trips?
No. Frequent contact with nature is important, and research confirms that kids can form strong connections with nature even if they live in high-rise apartment buildings (Sobko et al 2018).
So it doesn't make sense to wait until you can plan the perfect trip to a special beauty spot. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good!
Visiting your neighborhood park is helpful, even if it offers only a grassy field, or a stand of trees. And when you can't make it to the park? Your child can benefit from monitoring a small container garden.
To really connect with nature, we need to pay attention to our environment. But what if kids are slow to engage, or don't seem interested? Grab their attention with activities that require close observation -- and a goal.
For example, research suggests that people feel more connected with nature when they feed local birds (Cox and Gaston 2016).
Kids have become more involved after engaging in daily wildlife monitoring, like bird-watching, and taking tallies of the different species they've spotted (White et al 2018).
In the same way, your child might benefit from going on a "bug safari" (a quest to find different kinds of insects), or a hunt for interesting rocks, seeds, or pine cones.
For more ideas, see this Parenting Science guide to animal tracking activities for young children.
Being outdoors is a great opportunity for a child to be boisterous, and make no mistake: Kids thrive when we provide them with open spaces to run around and explore.
But kids also need to learn basic guidelines for behaving with consideration, compassion, and respect. Indeed, as I explain elsewhere, researchers regard empathy for nature and respect for nature as essential for experiencing a strong sense of connectedness to nature.
So we should teach kids how to share spaces with other visitors and wildlife.
Research suggests that we feel more deeply connected to nature when we share our nature experiences with others (McEwan et al 2019). And kids may reap special benefits when they express their ideas creatively.
For instance, in one study, kids reported more intense connections with nature after they finished a creative project -- a drawing, painting, sculpture, story, or photoessay -- communicating their observations of the natural world (Bruni et al 2017).
Folks who are really preoccupied with their cell phones – and who use their
phones as an escape from negative feelings – are less likely to experience
feelings of connectedness with nature (Richardson et al 2018).
City dwellers are often unaware of the biological diversity around them, and that's a barrier: People are more likely to feel connected with nature when they are familiar with the species they encounter.
For example, in a study of people living in the U.K., researchers found that individuals had more positive responses to birds when they could identify different species, and something about the birds' behavior (Cox and Gaston 2015).
So don't just send kids outdoors. Provide them with opportunities to learn about wildlife. Look for online guides to the biodiversity in your area. If you're in the U.S., look up your local branch of the Audubon society, and check out the National Wildlife Federation's nature guide apps.
Getting involved with local conservation doesn't just help the environment. It can also help us deepen our feelings about nature. But what sorts of things can we do?
Kids can help with each of these -- even rescue projects -- and the experiences are likely to boost their environmental awareness and empathy for wildlife.
For instance, in an elementary school in Sweden, 5th graders participated in an 8-week project to rescue amphibians from a human-made hazard.
The students learned about the ecology and behavior of a local salamander species.
They also took turns searching for, and transporting, salamanders that were trapped in a dried-up, concrete wading pool.
The children's efforts helped the environment, and also had a transformative effect on the kids (Barthel et al 2018).
Immediately after completing the project -- and in interviews conducted two years later -- kids said the project made them feel more empathy and concern for the salamanders. They also reflected that the project had helped them understand the importance of nature.
It's not terribly surprising: Kids find it more difficult to
connect with nature when the weather makes them uncomfortable -- or
limits their activities (Talebpour et al 2020). Grandma was right. Kids
really should go outside when the weather is good.
But at the same time, we don't need to give up on nature experiences because it's rainy or windy or otherwise difficult. In fact, learning about weather patterns can be an exciting way to connect with nature.
Going to a new beach? A cool waterfall? A mountain trail? A scenic gorge? The Grand Canyon?
Whether it's a local beauty spot, or a major world attraction, give your kids the opportunity to look and learn before you visit. Help kids learn what to expect -- what's exciting and interesting about this location. What plants and animals can you expect to find there? What geological features exist, and how were they formed?
You can find images and information in books, but look, too, for images and videos online. Learning in advance builds anticipation. It will also make your visit more enjoyable.
To enjoy the positive psychological benefits of nature, you don't have to be outdoors. As I explain elsewhere, researchers have shown that just looking at scenes of nature can help.
So when you're stuck indoors, don't give up on nature experiences. Expose your child to exciting nature documentaries and photographs. And if you're lucky enough to have a window view of nature, take the time to enjoy it.
Check out these Parenting Science articles on related subjects:
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Barthel S, Belton S, Raymond CM, Giusti M. 2018. Fostering Children's Connection to Nature Through Authentic Situations: The Case of Saving Salamanders at School. Front Psychol. 9:928.
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Bruni CM and Schultz PW. 2010. Implicit beliefs about self and nature: Evidence from an IAT game.Journal of Environmental Psychology 30(1): 95-102.
Bruni CM, Winter PL, Schultz PW, Omoto AM and Tabanico JJ. 2017. Getting to know nature: evaluating the effects of the Get to Know Program on children’s connectedness with nature. Environmental Education Research, 23(1), 43–62.
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Cox DT and Gaston KJ. 2016. Urban Bird Feeding: Connecting
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Cox DT and Gaston KJ. 2015. Likeability of garden birds: Importance of species knowledge and richness in connecting people to nature. PLoS One. 10(11):e0141505.
Duron-Ramos MF, Collado S, García-Vázquez FI, Bello-Echeverria M. 2020. The Role of Urban/Rural Environments on Mexican Children's Connection to Nature and Pro-environmental Behavior. Front Psychol. 2020;11:514.
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Image credits for "How to connect with nature":
image of little girl planting seedling by Sasiitock / istock
image of toddler watering container garden by Helin Loik-Tomson / istock
image of boy searching for bugs at night by EvgeniiAnd / istock
image of father and son by gpointstudio / istock
image of boy with camera by simonapillola / istock
image of girls with pond water by monkeybusinessimages / istock
image of baby looking out window by iEverest / istock
Content of "How to connect with nature" last modified 7/9/2020