Research Summary

How combinations of recreational activities predict connection to nature among youth

Solitary and social outdoor activities positively impact connectedness to nature in youth

The Journal of Environmental Education

Connectedness to nature (CTN) correlates to environmental engagement and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, which are important for developing a society that will conserve and restore the natural world. However, even as climate change and environmental crisis are becoming more prominent, some research shows CTN is decreasing among youth in comparison to past generations. There have been a handful of studies which connect time in nature, CTN, and pro-environmental behavior, but there has not been sufficient research to compare how solitude in nature versus specific social activities impact CTN. As opposed to the existing qualitative and retrospective studies, this is a quantitative research attempt to analyze the relative impact of solitary and social nature-based activities on CTN in children.

Connectedness to nature (CTN) has various definitions, but these researchers characterized it as having positive emotions for and comfort in natural environments. Solitary time in nature as a child has been proven to be an important predictor of environmental engagement and pro-environmental decision making later in life. These moments of solitude in nature commonly arise during free play and exploration in nature that may be accompanied by adult supervision from a distance. Hunting and fishing are commonly excluded from studies of CTN because of their perceived negative environmental impacts. However, this study included hunting and fishing because many individuals participate in these activities to spend time in nature alone or with family and friends. Hunting and fishing involve substantial knowledge and awareness of ecosystems, and studies have shown that hunters and fishers are significantly more likely than the average person to participate in conversation efforts. Past research shows communities of color, including children of color, are generally less connected to nature than white counterparts, due to the factors of discrimination, cultural exclusion, and lack of access to nature. Boys tend to have less CTN than girls, which studies attribute to the way girls are typically socialized to be nurturing and focused on relationships.

This study took place in North and South Carolina in the US. An online survey was distributed to teachers who administered the survey in their classes to a total of 1,285 fifth graders between the age of 9 and 12 years. When compared to national US data on gender and ethnicity, the sample was representative of the US population. Some of the teachers who were included in this study were a part of an existing environmental education study, and the remainder of teachers were randomly selected from the same geographic areas. CTN was measured using a five-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree) across six questions. Frequency of participation in outdoor activities was assessed with a five-point scale (never to once a week or more). Activities included camping, fishing, hunting, hiking, playing sports, playing outside, and spending time in nature alone, with family, or in a group. Using data analysis, the researchers identified the upper and lower quartile of CTN responses to create two distinct groups of participants, one with high CTN and one with low CTN. They then investigated the two groups’ respective combination of outdoor activities and level of socialization during those activities to illuminate trends.

Spending time alone in nature was the most significant variable that determined high CTN. Participation in hunting and fishing, which were the activities involving the most solitude while in nature, had the most significant impact on increasing CTN out of the outdoor activities included in the study. Socializing outdoors in groups was also very predictive of high CTN. The participants with the highest CTN scores tended to participate in a mix of both solitary and social outdoor activities, such as playing sports outdoors. Demographic variables such as gender and ethnicity did not have a statistically significant impact on CTN levels. This may suggest that differences in CTN between genders and ethnicity are a secondary result of different access to solitary and social nature-based activities.

The researchers recognized that CTN can be impacted by an individual’s culture and/or worldview, but they chose to focus on the simple definition of CTN as affinity for and comfort in nature, especially because they worked with younger children who may not have developed more complex relationships to nature yet. The researchers also acknowledged that dividing race and ethnicity into two groups (white and nonwhite) is socially problematic and clarified that they would have preferred to further divide nonwhite into more specific ethnic groups, but the small sample size prevented them from doing so. In addition, the researchers made assumptions about how social or non-social participants were in each outdoor activity, and separately asked the participants about how much time they spent alone in nature versus how much time they spent with their families or groups in nature. The conclusions drawn from the data may have been more accurate if the researchers asked how solitary or social each individual outdoor activity was for the students.

Children should be encouraged to spend time alone in nature, as it was shown to be the most significant predictor for high CTN in this study. Although hunting and fishing can occur in different ways, there are many cases in which the activities are done in solitude and rooted in respect for nature. The authors recommended that children engage in outdoor activities that involve solitude, such as hunting and fishing. Although spending time alone in nature was the most predictive variable for high CTN, the highest CTN scores were linked to social activities outdoors. The researchers therefore suggested that social support for children is essential to developing CTN and pro-environmental behavior. Generally, solitary time in nature should be encouraged through curriculum and programming and reinforced by social time in nature. Practitioners can utilize scaffolding activities or activities with occasional instruction mixed with time for quiet and contemplation to provide students with solitude in nature that is supported and supervised. Results showed that all children regardless of gender or ethnicity have the same capacity to connect with nature, so programs that create equal access to nature and outdoor activities should be promoted and supported.

The Bottom Line

Connectedness to nature (CTN) has been linked to pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, which are important for developing a society that will protect and restore the natural world. Past studies have demonstrated a link between time spent outdoors during childhood and high CTN. This paper analyzed how specific outdoor activities (e.g., camping, hiking, fishing) either in solitude or in groups impacted CTN in 1,285 fifth graders from North and South Carolina in the US. The results revealed that time spent alone in nature was the best predictor for high CTN, but that social activities outdoors were also important for CTN. Hunting and fishing were the activities with the strongest positive impact on CTN. Practitioners should develop programming to allow for students to spend time alone in nature, while mixing in social support and activities, and ensure that students have equal access to such programming regardless of gender or ethnicity.