Research Summary

Promoting connectedness with nature through environmental education

Promoting Connectedness with Nature is Easier with Younger Children

Environmental Education Research

Promoting a sense of connectedness with nature has become an increasingly discussed topic in EE over the past several years. The basic premise is that those who feel that nature is an extension of their own selves are more likely to take care of it. However, few quantitative studies have been conducted to measure the effectiveness of EE programs at promoting a sustained sense of connectedness with nature. This paper reports on two studies aimed at addressing this gap. The first of these studies was designed to measure the baseline connectedness with nature among students of different age groups and academic tracks in school. After establishing this baseline, the second study measured the short-term and long-term increase in connectedness with nature among 9- to 10-year-old and 11- to 13-year-old students after a four-day EE program.

The baseline study consisted of 304 students in Germany, with three subsamples: one subsample of 154 students aged 9 to 10 (fourth grade), and two subsamples of students aged 11 to 13 (sixth grade). Of the older students, 74 were general-education-track students and 76 were university-track students. In Germany, students are split into these two tracks after fourth grade based on their academic achievement (higher academic achievement students go to university track).

To establish the level of connectedness with nature, the authors used the Inclusion of Nature in Self (INS) scale, first developed by Shultz in 2002. The scale is designed to measure the extent to which a person defines himself or herself as part of nature. The INS scale consists of a single question, which shows seven pairs of circles differing in the extent to which they overlap (from not overlapping to completely overlapping). One circle in each pair is labeled “self ” and the other circle is labeled “nature.” Each student was asked to choose the pair of circles that best described how interconnected they are to nature. This question was embedded within a questionnaire containing 46 additional items on environmental knowledge and values. For the purposes of this paper, only the results from the INS scale item are discussed.

The results of this baseline study show that the younger cohort (9- to 10-year-olds, median score = 5.33 out of 7) scored significantly higher on the INS scale compared to the older cohort (11- to 13-year-olds, median score = 4.45/7). Among the older students, the university-track students scored significantly higher than the than the general-education-track students (median score 4.71 versus 4.13). The older university-track students still had scores lower than the younger students.

Having established this baseline, the researchers then conducted a study to measure the influence of a four-day environmental education program on the students’ sense of connectedness with nature. This study included 264 students total, 190 of whom participated in the EE program and 74 who were a control group. Of the 190 students who did the program, 135 students were 9–10 years old and 55 students were 11–13 years old, in the general-education track. The program was not offered to the older university-track students. The control group, who didn’t participate in the EE program, consisted of about half younger students (39) and half older students (35).

The four-day program, titled “Water in life; life in water,” was implemented at a field center in Germany. The same instructor taught all the students during different school outings in the late spring and summer. The students received approximately six hours of guidance every day and spent the nights at the field center. The program included both cognitive and affective aspects, as well as formal and informal learning. The students spent most of the time outside, encountering and exploring a lake and stream. One teaching method was playing “discovery and perception games,” where, for example, students were led barefoot and blindfolded through shallow water to activate their nonvisual senses. Another example of this was having the students lie still for 10 minutes in a grassland next to a small creek in complete silence. Cognitive activities included catching and labeling riparian and aquatic animals in order to judge water quality and acquiring basic knowledge about local and worldwide water problems, among others.

The same INS scale and questionnaire as the baseline study was used to measure the students’ connectedness with nature two weeks before, immediately after, and four weeks after the EE program. The control group completed the questionnaires in the same temporal order, but without any program participation. The regular teachers of the students in the study were asked not to teach anything on the topic of water until after the final questionnaires had been completed.

The results of this study showed significant short-term increases in INS scores among both the younger (9- to 10-year-olds) and older (11- to 13-year-olds) students after the EE program. The increase was significantly higher for the younger students compared to the older ones. And after four weeks, only the younger students’ INS scores remained significantly increased when compared to before the EE program. In other words, the older students reported an increased sense of connection with nature immediately after the program, but by four weeks later, they felt the same as before they completed the program. In contrast, the younger students felt much more connected with nature after the program and continued to feel that way four weeks later. The control group showed no significant differences in INS scores between the three test times.

The finding that younger students have a higher baseline sense of connectedness with nature is in line with findings from similar studies. The 11- to 13-year-olds are at the age of the onset of puberty, which the authors suggest may play a significant role. They reason that puberty and adolescence tend to be a time where children are seeking greater autonomy and independence, which may also contribute to an increased sense of independence from nature.

With regard to the higher INS scores among university-track students compared to general-education-track students, the authors suggest a few possibilities for why this might be. One is that higher-academic-achievement students have been found to have higher cognitive abilities, which, according to some researchers, has been associated with openness and a greater concern for others. This may be directly related to a sense of greater connectedness with nature. Differences in the education the students receive once they split into the two tracks, and differences in socioeconomic status between the two groups, may also be contributing factors.

The finding that younger students are more apt to increase their sense of connectedness with nature—and to retain this increase—after an EE experience is also in keeping with previous research. One such previous study, by Wells and Leckies (2006), found that only children who spent time in nature before the age of 11 showed greater pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors later on in life.

The Bottom Line

Promoting a sense of connectedness with nature is an essential goal for EE, as it directly relates to how likely a person is to care for the environment. This study found that younger students, ages 9 to 10, report a greater sense of connectedness with nature than older students, ages 11 to 13. A four-day EE program, which allowed students to encounter nature directly, led to significant increases in this sense of connectedness. However, only the younger students maintained this increase four weeks after the program. This study highlights the importance of providing nature experiences for youth. It also suggests more attention is needed to help students connect with nature as they go through adolescence and also to maintain that connection after the program.