Does your child feel connected with nature? Researchers can measure these feelings with a standard questionnaire, and they've discovered fascinating links. Nature-loving children are happier. They experience fewer behavior problems. And they are more likely to treat others with kindness.
As I have explained before, the scientific evidence is compelling. Green space is good for us. Experiments and massive, population-wide studies all converge on the same conclusions about exposure to nature:
But most of this research is about spending time in green space. Hanging out. Being there physically.
It doesn't necessarily address how we perceive the natural world. Many of us feel an emotional connection with nature. What about that?
Researchers have defined "connectedness to nature" as an individual's "affective, experiential connection to nature." Does it make a difference, feeling this connection? It certainly seems to.
For example, researchers in Canada asked 30,000 adolescents if they were experiencing emotional problems or symptoms of stress (Piccininni et al 2018).
The kids answered questions about irritability, nervousness, depression, sleep disturbance, and frequent headaches. In addition, the kids rated their feelings about the natural world.
And researchers discovered a telling link:
Compared with kids who were relatively indifferent, adolescents who rated their connection with nature as "important" had a 25% reduction in stress-related symptoms.
In a smaller study of approximately 300 primary school children in Mexico, researchers found that kids with strong feelings of connectness to nature tended to report higher levels of happiness (Barrera-Hernandez et al 2020).
And parallel results have been reported in a wide range of adult surveys. Across 30 published studies on adult well-being, connectedness to nature has been linked with greater feelings of happiness and vitality (Capaldi et al 2015).
Adults who feel connected to nature take more actions to protect and preserve it (Geng et al 2015), and it’s likely that kids experience a similar effect.
In that survey of Mexican children, feelings of connecteness to nature were strongly correlated with pro-ecological behavior (like conserving household resources).
And in a Swedish study, researchers found that 10-year-old children developed stronger feelings of responsibility and care toward wildlife after they helped rescue a local amphibian species from a human-made hazard.
Two years later, these kids still reported feeling increased sympathy and concern for the creatures (Barthel et al 2018).
For evidence, consider a study by Tanja Sobko and her colleagues -- a study of families living in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is intensely urban, but it's dotted by many parks and green spaces. In fact, 90% of the population lives within 400 meters of one of these small "nature zones."
So there are many opportunities for outdoor
activities and nature experiences. Does nature play an important
role in children's lives? And, if so, does a child's feelings about
nature predict his or her behavior toward other human beings?
answer, Sobko and colleagues recruited more than 200 parents of young
children -- kids between the ages of 2 and 5. And the researchers asked
parents to fill out two different questionnaires.
One was a standard screening tool called the "Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire." It measures behavioral and emotional adjustment. Parents were asked if their children experienced
In addition, parents were asked to assess the degree to which their youngsters behaved prosocially, i.e., whether their kids were
The second questionnaire, called the "Connectedness to Nature Index for Parents of Preschool Children," or CNI-PPC, asked parents to rate their agreement with statements about their children's
For example, parents read statements like "Being in nature makes my child peaceful" (a measure of "enjoyment of nature"), and they indicated whether the statements were true, only somewhat true, or not at all true.
I've copied some additional sample items in the box below. They will help you better understand what the researchers were looking for. They also offer some thought-provoking questions for you to ask about your own child.
Three of the "connectedness" factors -- enjoyment of nature, responsibility for nature, and awareness of nature -- were directly related to preschoolers' behavior, and some of the effects were large.
For instance, responsibility toward nature explained about 70% of the variation in conduct problems and prosocial behavior. It explained approximately 60% of the variation in peer problems, and 40% of the variation in children's tendencies to be hyperactive or inattentive.
Enjoyment of nature had a widespread impact across the spectrum of social and emotional functioning, explaining about 50% of the variation among children.
And awareness of nature explained approximately 50% of the observed variation in children's emotional problems.
What about empathy for nature?
That, too, was strongly linked to social and behavioral problems, but the path was indirect.
Children who scored high on empathy for nature tended to score high on responsibility toward nature, and it was responsibility-- a factor emphasizing a child's actions -- that best predicted a child's behavior and social-emotional status.
Why was connectedness to nature linked with better child outcomes?
The researchers caution that they didn't collect information on the parents' socioeconomic status and parenting styles. They didn't ask parents about their own, personal attitudes toward nature.
And it's sure bet that parental characteristics explain at least some of the results here.
For instance, kids who are connected with nature may be more likely to have parents who actively support the development of prosocial behavior. Their parents might make better use of strategies that help young children hone social skills (see this Parenting Science article for tips on fostering preschool social skills).
It also seems likely that family stress (including economic stress) plays a role.
Parents who are stressed-out are more likely to have children with behavior problems. And if you're stressed-out, are you going to invest as much time and energy in helping your child feel connected with nature? Maybe not.
Then, too, we mustn't forget that this study didn't evaluate children directly. Researchers are relying on parental reports.
Parents know a lot about their children, but they are imperfect witnesses, and they might get some things wrong.
In their study of Mexican school children -- ranging in age from 9 to 12 years -- Laura Barrera-Hernandez and colleagues found that "connectedness to nature" tended to predict self-reported altruism and fairness.
Kids who scored high on connectedness were more likely to agree with statements like
This study, like the Hong Kong study, didn't control for parental characteristics or socioeconomic status, so we still can't know how these factors might have affected the results.
But regardless, we're still left with the links.
In the Hong Kong study, parents who perceived lots of nature connectedness in their preschoolers also reported better child outcomes.
In the study of Mexican school children, kids who scored high on connectedness also expressed more friendly, egalitarian, prosocial attitudes.
If nothing else, we have evidence that "connectedness to nature" is a predictor of better behavior. It's a good sign.
If kids grow up feeling connected with nature, they will be more likely to seek out nature experiences. And, as I've explained elsewhere, experiments indicate that nature experiences can reduce stress, dispel bad moods, restore concentration.
What happens when we've got all these good things going for us?
We tend to be more pleasant, considerate, attentive.
So it makes sense that connecting with nature could lead us to become more prosocial -- more likely to help, share, and befriend.
Kids need to experience nature, that's obvious. But you shouldn't feel helpless if you live in a city, or lack a private green space.
Those preschoolers in the Hong Kong study were growing up in one of the most densely populated places on earth, and all of the kids lived in apartments. Yet they still developed strong feelings of connectedness to nature.
For more, see my article, "How to connect with nature: Tips for tuning into the natural world."
Want to know more about the science in favor of green spaces? See my article, "Green spaces benefit mental health."
In addition, see this Parenting Science article about the many benefits of outdoor play, as well as my evidence-based guide, "Outdoor learning and green time: How kids benefit from learning and playing in nature."
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Image credits for "Kids who feel connected with nature":
Title image of children under the trees by jacoblund/istock
image of park in Hong Kong by lavendertme / istock
image of big sister hugging little brother by mmg1design / istock
Content last modified 7/1/2020