As with so many of our adult traits, a love of nature can often be traced to childhood. Hiking and camping, or just playing in a vacant lot or neighborhood forest: such experiences are seeds of a lifelong connection to the living world, a connection that’s both good for one’s health and, in aggregate, good for nature. After all, it’s the everyday actions of individuals, multiplied by billions, that will determine whether the extinction crisis is halted and sustainable living prevails.
Social programs and much scientific attention are now devoted to fostering youthful connections to nature — yet what about adults? How can biophilia be nourished in people who missed out as kids? It’s an issue that “definitely doesn’t seem to attract the same kind of attention that children-and-nature movements do,” says Anne Cleary, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University, where she studies relationships between urban nature and human well-being.
To learn more, Cleary and colleagues surveyed more than 1,000 adult residents of Brisbane. They asked respondents about their attitudes — Did they feel kinship with nonhuman lives? Was nature important to them? Did they think about the effects of their actions on the environment? — and also their experiences, both past and present, with nature. Unlike other studies of urban nature experiences, Cleary’s team didn’t focus on activities that might not be easily accessible to many people, such as hiking or sailing or even park visits; just spending time outside, appreciating a street tree, also counted.
The results, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, showed not only that childhood nature experiences predicted a nature-attuned adulthood; so did adult experiences, even for people whose exposure came relatively late in life. “People can develop their relationship with nature throughout various stages in life,” wrote the researchers. “Childhood nature experiences are not necessarily a prerequisite.”
Future research might illuminate in greater detail the effects of particular kinds of experience. How does, say, sitting on a balcony overlooking a treetop compare to gardening, or strolling through a wildlife sanctuary to walking in a rigidly landscaped park? But even without knowing such details, the implications of the current study are clear.
“We need to adopt a broad perspective and think ‘beyond the park’ when it comes to designing initiatives that engage urban residents with nature in their city,” suggest Cleary and colleagues. “All aspects of nature in the city should be considered as a potential opportunity.” And these opportunities should be targeted at everyone, not just kids, and especially those grown-ups who never had much contact with nature.
“Here in Australia we have whole Nature Play movements. There is also the international Children and Nature Network and the ever-growing popularity of Forest Schools,” Cleary says. “I’m not sure why such efforts don’t also target other age groups.”
Source: Cleary et al. “Predictors of Nature Connection Among Urban Residents: Assessing the Role of Childhood and Adult Nature Experiences.” Environment and Behavior, 2018.
Image: Max Pixel
About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science, and the author of The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.