Research Summary

Effect of frequency and mode of contact with nature on children's self-reported ecological behaviors

Effect of Frequency and Mode of Contact with Nature on Children’s Self-Reported Ecological Behaviors

Journal of Environmental Psychology

Often, one of the main elements of environmental education programs is spending time in nature. This derives from the belief of both practitioners and researchers that a relationship exists between time spent in nature and a person’s environmental views, behaviors, and overall health. Better understanding the mechanisms behind this relationship could help inform environmental education practice. In this study, the authors considered frequency of children’s contact with nature, attitudes toward the environment, and choices of environmentally related behaviors.

Although past research has demonstrated that a child’s experience in nature can have a lasting impact, the relationship between how children feel about the environment and their related behavioral choices is not always strong and direct. This suggests that other factors are at play in this complex relationship. In this paper, the researchers found two such complicating factors: a child’s frequency of interaction with the natural environment and the type of interaction experienced.

The research was conducted in Spain, where the authors surveyed a total of 832 children between the ages of 6 and 12. The average age of participants was 10; 49% of the research participants were male and 51% were female. The researchers separated children into three groups based on where they lived: the first group of children lived in urban environments, where they had access to more manicured nature settings; the second lived in a rural mountainous region, where they had access to “wild” nature settings; and the third lived in a region dominated by agriculture. The first two groups (urban and rural mountains) primarily had recreational interactions with nature; the third group (agricultural) had work-related interactions.

First, to establish the children’s frequency of contact with nature, the overall sample of 832 children were asked to respond to the following two questions: “How frequently have you spent time in natural places such as the countryside, the beach, the mountains, etc.?” and “How frequently have you visited places such as zoos or aquariums?” The children rated their frequency of interaction in the last year from 0 (never) to 5 (more than 10 times). They were asked two more questions about their daily interactions with nature: “Do you play in natural places after school time?” and “Do you play in natural places during the weekends?” Responses to these were given on a scale from 0 (never) to 5 (always).

To measure attitudes toward the environment, the researchers then asked the 832 children whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of 16 statements about the environment. These statement included phrases such as: “It makes me sad to see homes built where plants and animals used to live” and “Plants and animals are important to people.”

Last, to measure the participants’ environmental behaviors, the researchers asked the children how often they participated in five specific behaviors. The children reported their behaviors using the same scale of 0 (never) to 5 (always). The five behaviors were: (1) “I carry out activities to protect the environment;” (2) “To save water, I use less water when I have a shower or a bath;” (3) “In school, I talk to my teachers and peers about the importance of doing things to protect the environment (e.g., recycling);” (4) “At home, I help to separate items and to recycle;” and (5) “To save energy, I switch off the electrical appliances when I’m not using them.” Furthermore, for each group, the researchers randomly chose 60 children to ask an open-ended question about their interactions with the environment. The question was, “What do you do when you are in natural areas near your house?” The children answered the question on a blank paper.

The results helped inform the relationship between participants’ interactions in nature, attitudes toward the environment, and environmentally related behaviors. The children in the rural agricultural group, for example, wrote about work-related activities and mentioned places related to agricultural landscapes, such as fields and farms, when asked, “What do you do when you are in natural areas near your house?” The children from rural mountainous and urban areas both wrote about recreational activities in nature; their responses differed in that the rural children described wild places while the urban children primarily described manicured city parks. Overall, the children living in both rural and agricultural environments had higher frequency of interactions with nature.

For children living in urban environments, the researchers found that higher frequency of nature interactions positively influenced both environmental attitudes 13 and, to a lesser extent, pro-environmental behaviors. Environmental attitudes, in addition, had the largest effect (positive) on environmental behaviors. For rural children in mountainous areas, the researchers found no direct effect of nature contact on environmental behaviors. They did, however, find a positive effect on environmental attitudes. Results for children in the mountainous group were similar to those for the urban group; for the mountainous group, though, the positive effect of environmental attitudes on environmental behaviors was the largest. The authors hypothesized that there may be a “ceiling effect” where, after a certain point, interactions with nature may not have as much of an impact on the children’s environmental behaviors.

The researchers found that for children living in rural agricultural locations, the direct effect of contact with nature on environmental behaviors was negative, while the effect on environmental attitudes was positive. Because the effect of environmental attitudes on environmental behavior was positive, the researchers did note a positive effect of frequency of contact with nature on environmental behaviors mediated through environmental attitudes for the children in rural agricultural areas.

This study’s findings shed light on the complex factors that can impact a student’s tendencies to undertake pro-environmental behaviors and environmental attitudes. Specifically, the authors explored time spent interacting with nature as well as its effect on attitudes toward the environment and environmental behaviors. Similar to previous studies, this study found that time spent interacting with nature in activities that the authors term “unsatisfactory,” such as work, may have a negative effect on environmental behavior. In all cases, however, the authors found that contact with nature positively influenced environmental attitudes, which in turn positively influenced environmental behavior.

Although the results align with previous studies on these topics, the authors acknowledge limitations in their study: because their study is cross-sectional, the authors cannot claim a causal relationship in their findings. They emphasize, furthermore, the importance of considering that their study was conducted in Spain with specific groups of children in particular locations. The authors suggest that what affected this group of participants may or may not affect a different group of students in the same way. Lastly, the authors recommend further studies to better understand why children who undertake work-related activities in natural settings seem to experience a negative influence on their environmental behaviors.

The Bottom Line

When considering nature interactions as a pathway toward promoting environmentally related behaviors with children, it is important to consider children’s previous interactions with and types of daily experiences with nature. For urban children, daily contact with nature appears to be an effective means toward encouraging pro-environmental attitudes and, similarly, pro-environmental behaviors. For children who already have daily exposure to natural areas—such as those who live in rural or mountainous areas—or for children who associate nature with work rather than leisure, alternative strategies to encouraging pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors might be more effective. Overall, although designing environmentally related programs that focus on spending time in nature seems to be an appropriate path toward encouraging pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors for certain groups of children, more research is needed to understand how to mitigate the negative effects of those who associate nature with work or other compulsory activities. These results suggest that practitioners might benefit from considering children’s existing daily relationships with nature when designing effective programming.