1 in 2 elementary school-age children have a strong connection to nature, but this wanes in their teens. How to reverse the trend – The Conversation | Directory Mayhem

Parents and researchers have long suspected that city kids are becoming disconnected from nature due to technological distractions, indoor lifestyles, and increasing urban density. Limited access to nature during the COVID-19 lockdowns has increased such fears.

In fact, “nature deficit disorder” has become a buzzword fueling concerns about children’s well-being and their ability to understand and care for the natural world.

However, there is surprisingly little research to directly test whether there is a disconnect between children and nature – and if so, how this might affect their environmental behavior. Our recent research, focusing on Australian children in urban areas, attempted to fill this knowledge gap.

We found that most younger children, especially girls, reported a strong connection to nature and a commitment to pro-environmental behavior. But by their teenage years, many children have lost their love of nature. Understanding and reversing this trend is critical to addressing climate change, biodiversity loss and other serious environmental challenges.

A phalanx of singing students marches towards the camera, flanked by posters and flags.
Young people are the key to solving environmental problems.
Henry Lydecker

What we have done

Our research involved more than 1,000 students aged 8 to 14 attending 16 public schools across Sydney.

We measured students’ connections to nature with a questionnaire that asked for their questions:

  • enjoyment of nature
  • empathy for creatures
  • sense of oneness with nature
  • sense of responsibility towards nature.

The survey also inquired about the current environmental behavior of the students, e.g. B. whether they recycle waste and save water and energy, and their willingness to:

  • volunteer for nature conservation
  • Donate money to conservation organizations
  • Talk to friends and family about protecting nature.

Read more: Being in nature is good for learning, here’s how to get kids off screens and outside

Children sit in a circle on the meadow and talk.
A girl volunteers her opinions in a group discussion at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
Ryan Keith

what we found

Contrary to popular belief about nature deficit syndrome, we found that 1 in 2 children aged 8 to 11 feel a strong connection to nature despite living in the city. However, only one in five teenagers reported strong connections to nature.

Children in the younger age group were also more likely to exhibit pro-environmental behavior. For example, one in two made a commitment to save water and energy every day, and two in three recycled every day.

Girls generally formed closer emotional ties to nature than boys did, a difference that was particularly noticeable in the final stages of elementary school.

Connection to nature by age and gender. CNI = Connection to Nature Index.
author provided

Importantly, girls differed from boys in their responses to questions about sensory stimulation. Girls especially liked seeing wildflowers, hearing the sounds of nature, and touching animals and plants. This finding echoes previous research, which found that the motivation for sensory pleasure is greater in women than in men.

Girls also felt greater empathy for nonhuman animals than boys, even after accounting for differences in sensory experience.

Children with a strong connection to nature were much more likely to show pro-environmental behavior. This helps explain why girls were more willing than boys to volunteer for conservation.

Read more: “Nature doesn’t judge you”: How young people in cities think about nature

Butterfly on a girl's hand.
Girls felt more compassion for nonhuman animals than boys.

What does it all mean?

These results suggest that parents, educators, and others wishing to reconnect adolescence with nature should focus on the transition between childhood and teenage years.

Adolescence is a time of great change. Children move from elementary school to secondary school, change age groups and struggle through puberty. They gain independence and need to adapt to a maturing brain.

Relationships with nature tend to fall by the wayside when teenagers prioritize other aspects of their busy lives. In fact, evidence of youthful immersion in nature connection is emerging in various cultures.

Educators and parents who want to engage girls in the outdoors could offer them activities that focus on sensory stimuli.

Girls’ greater empathy for nonhuman animals may result from societal norms that lead girls to be more caring, cooperative, and empathetic than boys. Boys can be encouraged to have more empathy for non-human animals by focusing on perspective taking and role play.

Even when cooped up at home, both girls and boys can develop empathy for animals and nurture their connection to nature by paying attention to their surroundings. Although cities can appear like concrete jungles, they still contain urban wildlife, parks, and other green elements.

Read more: Look up! A mighty owl could be roosting in your yard after surveying territory for miles during the night

Girl rides a bike through the park
Environmentally conscious children can promote a relationship with nature in urban areas.

Children are the future

Recent research has shown that stronger connections to nature are associated with improved health and well-being in children.

The benefits of connecting with nature should be distributed among youth in a just and equitable manner. This means working with groups that are often marginalized in discussions about nature, such as B. Ethnic minorities.

Conservation increasingly depends on young citizens making meaningful connections with urban nature. Many environmentalists, like Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, are teenage girls.

Addressing the Earth’s serious environmental challenges requires ensuring that city children maintain connections with nature well into adolescence. But it will also take more young people to face the difficult realization that the world climate is in crisis. For that, we need to develop better ways to help them cope.

Read more: How COVID-19 has impacted overnight school trips and why it matters

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