Connectedness to nature makes children happier


A new study in Frontiers in Psychology, led by Dr Laura Berrera-Hernández and her team at the Sonora Institute of Technology (ITSON), has shown for the first time that connectedness to nature makes children happier due to their tendency to perform sustainable and pro-ecological behaviors.

As our planet faces growing threats from a warming climate, deforestation and mass species extinction, research focusing on the relationships between humans and nature is increasingly urgent to find solutions to today’s environmental issues.

As younger generations will be the future custodians of the planet, work is being done by researchers on how we can promote sustainable behaviors and develop environmental care in children.

The researchers state that a disconnection to nature, termed ‘nature deficit disorder’, may contribute to the destruction of the planet, as the lack of a bond with the natural world is unlikely to result in desire to protect it.

Berrera-Hernández describes ‘connectedness to nature’ as not just appreciating nature’s beauty, but also “being aware of the interrelation and dependence between ourselves and nature, appreciating all of the nuances of nature, and feeling a part of it.”

The study recruited 296 children between the ages of 9 and 12 from a northwestern Mexican city.

All the participants were given a self-administered scale completed in school to measure their connectedness to nature, sustainable behaviors (pro-ecological behavior, frugality, altruism, and equity) and happiness.

This included measuring their agreement with statements about their connectedness to nature, such as ‘Humans are part of the natural world’ and statements about their sustainable behaviors, such as ‘I separate empty bottles to recycle’.

The researchers found that in children, feeling connected to nature had positive associations for sustainability practices and behaviors, and also led to children reporting higher levels of perceived happiness.

This suggests that children who perceive themselves to be more connected to nature tend to perform more sustainable behaviors and therefore also have greater levels of happiness.

Previous research on adults had suggested a relationship between connectedness to nature and the development of pro-environmental behaviors, and the happiness derived from these.

Berrera-Hernández describes ‘connectedness to nature’ as not just appreciating nature’s beauty, but also “being aware of the interrelation and dependence between ourselves and nature, appreciating all of the nuances of nature, and feeling a part of it.”

Despite the study’s limitations of only testing children from the same city, the results provide insight into the power of positive psychology of sustainability in children.

Deepening our understanding of the relationships between these variables may provide practical insights for the added psychological benefits of promoting sustainable behaviors in children.

If we are to develop environmental care and concern in younger generations, then initiatives to encourage and enable young people to spend more time in nature is a must.

Berrera-Hernández states: “Parents and teachers should promote children to have more significant contact or exposure to nature, because our results indicate that exposure to nature is related to the connection with it, and in turn, with sustainable behaviors and happiness.”

The study has fascinating and practical implications for future research in environmental psychology and its applications in nature-based education and initiatives, highlighting the positive benefits for both the planet and children’s wellbeing in encouraging more exposure and contact with the natural world.

Human connection with the rest of nature is a topic of increasing research interest [1] and is being recognized as of relevance to government policy relating to both human health and well-being and the natural environment [2].

This focus is required owing to the crises in mental well-being [3] and in planetary health owing to the effects of climate change from human activities [4]. A growing body of evidence suggests that nature connectedness has benefits to mental well-being (for reviews see [5,6]) and can also help deliver pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors [7–9].

The negative human impact on planetary health suggests a failing relationship between people and the rest of nature. There is a need for a renewed sustainable relationship, one that benefits the natural world, but can also benefit human well-being.

Given the apparent benefits to well-being and influence on pro-nature behaviors, nature connectedness is emerging as an important construct that can help develop a more sustainable relationship with the natural world. Importantly, nature connectedness is defined, can be measured and increased through large-scale campaigns [10].

With the need for a new human relationship with nature and growing interest in a policy context [2], population measures of nature connectedness are needed to complement those that are already being used to help monitor and report on people’s relationship with nature, for example the range of natural environment attitude and behavior measures captured through the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey (MENE).

Such measures are used to help target, design, and evaluate strategic policy and practice interventions. Although a range of measures for nature connectedness have been developed [11], none of these measures would be suitable for use in a national survey context due to the number, length, and complexity of item wording.

Nor are these measures suitable for use with both adults and children, which would be necessary to allow patterns across the lifespan to be monitored and offer the potential for longitudinal research. To meet an emerging need for population level data on nature connectedness, a collaboration of partners recently funded the development and testing of a short, simple measure suitable for use with both children and adults.

The new measure, the Nature Connection Index (NCI), was developed and tested through use in the existing omnibus survey the MENE survey, which has accredited National Statistic status in the UK. This paper provides background information on the new measure, presents the strengths and limitations of this as an approach and provides insight into what the new index reveals about nature connectedness in both children and adults.

Summary of the Rationale for Developing a New Measure for Nature Connectedness

The construct of connectedness to nature has multiple dimensions, including affective, cognitive and experiential factors related to our belonging to the natural world [12,13].

Nature connectedness is also concerned with an individual’s sense of self [14], where nature and humanity are one. Given the multiple factors, there are several measures used for adult populations (see [11] for a review) and those for children e.g., [15].

Each measure approaches the construct from a slightly different perspective, with some debate regarding how measures might tap into beliefs people hold about their connection to nature, rather than an individual’s affective relationship [16]. However, all were found to measure the construct of nature connectedness [11].

There is also interest in the relationship between childhood and adult nature connectedness and how it varies across the lifespan. Concern is often expressed about children’s lack of connection with nature [17] and research has shown that the level of nature connectedness is below that associated with pro-conservation behaviors [18]. However, there is little data on the profile of nature connectedness across the lifespan.

The NCI is intended to allow such data to be collected and through monitoring trends reveal factors linked to disconnection in childhood. Childhood and adolescence is a time of many significant physical and psychological changes where children develop an identity, form social relationships, competences, and goals that may conflict with a close connection with nature. A measure suitable for gathering population data across the lifespan needs to be simple and short. Many of the existing scales and their items are too long and complex and not suitable for use in a national survey context.

A current successful short scale, the NR-6, provides an excellent tool for research, but the items are less suitable for children, and perhaps a little esoteric even for some sections of the adult population, e.g., “My connection to nature and the environment is a part of my spirituality”. While the child-focused Connection to Nature Index (CNI) is straightforward to understand [15] and has demonstrated some diagnostic utility with regard to conservation behaviors [18], it is long, and some items are not that suitable for the wider adult population.

Summary of the Approach

An affective connection plays an important role in people’s engagement with the natural environment [19] and is emerging as a potential mechanism for the well-being benefits [20]. Therefore, affect was a key factor informing the development of the new measure. Item selection considered people’s affective and experiential relationship with nature, rather than a focus on cognitive appraisals about nature.

A framework to inform the item themes within the NCI was provided by the pathways to nature connectedness: emotion, beauty, contact, meaning and compassion [21]. These five types of relationship with nature have been found to explain a high level of variance in nature connectedness [21].

The pathways themselves are a subset of the nine values of biophilia (utilitarian, naturalistic, ecologistic-scientific, aesthetic, symbolic, humanistic, moralistic, dominionistic, negativistic) [22]. Further guidance was provided by reviews of existing nature connection measures e.g., [23,24].

Justification for the NCI Items

1. The first item related to the nature connectedness pathways [21] is emotion, “Being in nature makes me very happy”. An emotional attachment to nature is essential to nature connectedness [12], and is captured in the humanistic value of biophilia. Happiness has an affective component, it is an emotional experience linked to improvements in nature connectedness and well-being [5,13]. Existing measures of nature connection include happiness, e.g., “Being outdoors makes me happy” [15].

2. Given the first item is also a well-being benefit, a second item on emotion takes a different emotional pathway perspective, “I find being in nature really amazing”. States such as amazement, awe and wonder have been associated with eudemonic aspects of experience and therefore are differentiable from happiness [25]. Nature is known to be associated with positive feelings, such as awe and wonder [26,27] and wonder is often noted in observations of everyday nature [28]. Again, such emotional responses are associated with enhancing nature connectedness [29,30].

3. The third item is related to the beauty pathway [21], “I always find beauty in nature”. People are known to prefer aesthetically pleasing nature [31]. More recently, engagement with natural beauty has been shown to be involved in the relationship between nature connectedness and well-being [20,32,33].

4. The fourth item is related to the contact and meaning pathways [21], “Spending time in nature is very important to me”. Research into nature connectedness has placed an emphasis on direct experiences with nature that foster an affective relationship [19,34]. Such experiences of nature require time in it and time in nature can promote increased levels of nature connectedness [35–37]. It is an aspect included in other measures, for example “Spending time in nature is important to me” is included in the Environmental Identity Scale [38].

5. The fifth item is related to the compassion pathway [21], “I always treat nature with respect”. The compassion pathway is derived from the moralistic value of biophilia which involves ethical judgements and revering nature. In framing this aspect suitably for children, the decision was taken to use the term “respect”. Reverence is related to respect and respectful actions towards nature involve ethical judgements. The item has a behavioral focus as there can be a gap between values and action [39]. Furthermore, an action-based framing for this pathway was found to be an important indicator of nature connectedness, slightly above a value framing [21]. Nature connectedness is linked to pro-environmental attitudes [12,40], and behaviors [13]. This conservation of nature is captured within the moralistic value of biophilia [21,22,41]. This aspect of nature connectedness is found in existing measures, e.g., the Nature Relatedness Scale for adults [42].

6. The sixth item “I feel part of nature” reflects that connectedness to nature encompasses both affective and experiential sense of belonging to the natural world [12]. It relates to a person’s understanding of their interconnectedness with nature and their sense of inclusion within nature. It also reflects that nature connectedness captures a breadth of concepts including inclusion of self in nature, cognitive appraisals, appreciation of nature and emotional affiliations e.g., [43]. Feeling part of nature is an overarching aspect that taps directly into the concept of humans having a shared place within the natural world. It is a concept included in several other measures of nature connection, often less directly, and the sole concept of the single-item Inclusion of Nature in Self scale [44].

Summary of Methodology for Development of the NCI

Full details of the development work are detailed in [45]. Participants in the development were collected from early phases of the MENE data collected 2015/16 (n = 1294). Key aspects included adopting a 7-point response scale, “completely agree” to “completely disagree” based on data from the pilot sample.

This was preferred to a 5-point “strongly agree/disagree” as it provided a greater spread of scores. Results from the pilot, for example skewness, also led to the development of a weighted points index from zero to a maximum score of 100 in line with expectations for a national indicator approach and following standard approaches to data transformation [46]. The points index was scaled using the relative weight of item responses based on the distribution of the sum of inverse scores and variance (see column 3 of Table 1).

This sum figure reflected the “importance” or “usefulness” of each item, by giving a higher value to those variables where the mean is lower. This process also gave greater weight to items with more variance to produce better discriminatory power. The sum of inverse scores and variance for the six items was then used to calculate the contribution weight (see column 4 in Table 1).

These weights were then used to create the points index and value of the top answer code for each item. A non-linear power function was then used to scale the remaining six response options so that each ran from zero up to the maximum.

A non-linear approach was taken to give greater emphasis to the top answer codes. The non-linear points system by item shown in Table 2 improved dispersion, producing more even percentiles with the overall impact allowing the index to better rank respondents on strength of evidence of nature connectedness. The weighted points index provided a greater spread of scores, evened out the distribution to provide differentiation in the middle range and increased the weight of the final overarching item.

This ensured balanced representation of all six items and wider variation among the responses. The points index weighting was tested against unweighted scores and the simple weighting and produced the most evenly distributed index allowing the potential for categorization and banding without compromising relationships between the index and other variables of interest (e.g., ecological concern, well-being etc.). The data included both children and adults. Further development work included use of the NCI in initial large cohort studies evaluating applied interventions. Here the NCI has shown that it is sensitive to increases in nature connectedness brought about by applied interventions to engage people with nature [10].

Table 1. Calculation of weighted points index for each item.

The NCI was initially tested and developed through use in the MENE survey. As the MENE survey includes questions on environmental attitudes and behaviors there was an opportunity to look for evidence of any simple relationships between these factors (and demographics) and the NCI.

Summary of Potential Utility of the NCI

The potential utility of the measure lies, for example, in helping to explore key issues such as the “environmental value-action” gap which describes the disparity between the concerns people express about the natural environment and their own lifestyle.

People often report strong concerns about the environment but show low commitment to changing their own behavior and engaging in pro-environmental behaviors [39]. Nature connectedness is inherently a measure of value placed on the natural environment and can be compared to both attitudinal and behavioral measures.

Furthermore, as a relatively new psychological construct, nature connectedness provides a new direction for the study of such issues. For example, early models assumed people’s behavior to be rational, and proposed a linear relationship, with knowledge shaping attitudes and therefore influencing behavior [47].

However, even though environmental knowledge shows little effect on environmental behavior, it is still considered a necessary pre-requisite [48].

Newer approaches often focus on emotional factors, such as connectedness to nature. In fact, connectedness to nature may be an influential variable. It has been shown to be a much stronger predictor of environmental behavior than other factors, including knowledge [8].

As it is designed for children and adults, the NCI might be particularly useful to examine the relationship between values and behavior as the influence of connectedness to nature has been observed at several life stages [8].

To establish the validity and reliability of the NCI, the present paper reports three factor analyses. One based on a large MENE dataset for adults with a replication from data sets collected online and a third uses MENE data from children.

The paper also reports variation in NCI by demographics, across the lifespan and the relationship to key attitudes and behaviors. Finally, scale characteristics resulting from producing a simple scale allow observations related to the value-action gap.



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