Research Summary

Nature Mentors: A program to encourage outdoor activity and nature engagement among urban youth and families

Nature Mentors is a program designed to promote ongoing nature engagement among urban youth

Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning
2020

Concerns about the negative impact of children’s declining engagement with nature have spawned the development of intervention programs in communities around the world. Nature Mentors in Milwaukee is an example of one such program. Nature Mentors evolved from a partnership between the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee and academic researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The program was designed to encourage outdoor, nature-based activity among adult mentor and child mentee pairs and families. An evaluation component was built into the design of the program. The program was implemented once a week over a five-week period. Each 2.5-hour session included instruction in outdoor-related skills (e.g., fishing, bird watching, canoeing, etc.) and time to practice the skills in a natural setting.

Researchers used pre- and post-surveys and in-depth interviews to evaluate the outcomes of the Nature Mentors program and to assess the potential utility of similar programs in encouraging more time spent outdoors and in contact with nature. Assessment measures focused on participants’ intentions, skills and abilities, and environmental constraints relating to engagement in outdoor activities. One measure -- the Outdoor Skills Confidence Scale -- was developed by the research team to assess a participant’s self-efficacy in performing a range of outdoor, nature-based skills. This scale was completed by youth and adults before and after participating in the Nature Mentors program. Interview questions focused on participants’ perceptions of time outdoors, multiple levels of influence on their outdoor recreation, relationships between mentors and mentees, and feelings about nature and play in general. Interviews were also conducted before and after participation in the program. Participants also completed weekly program evaluation surveys.

Weekly evaluations showed a high level of satisfaction with the program. Most of the participants felt they had learned from the sessions and accomplished skills taught in the sessions. Survey and interview results provided clear evidence that significant environmental barriers – such as weather and climate – limited participants’ active outdoor time. The most serious barrier, however, related to concerns about physical safety.

This research highlights the significance of environmental barriers to behavior change in relation to outdoor activity, especially in urban areas. This study also demonstrates how existing environmental assets (such as parks and greenspace) can be used to influence individual behaviors, attitudes, self-efficacy, and skills. Additionally, this study indicates that programs like Nature Mentors can be effective in promoting more time outdoors and in contact with nature. The implementation of such programs may be especially helpful in urban, low-income neighborhoods where people are more likely to be significantly impacted by socioeconomic and environmental barriers.