Empowering the next generation to connect with nature

First published in Parks, Vol. 20.2 November 2014

Humans have an affinity for nature. This love of nature termed ‘biophilia’ was defined by E. O. Wilson (1984, p. 58) as: “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. We have evolved within and with nature. At the most basic of levels, we learned that plants and animals provided food, fibre and skins and so we tended them and cared for them. Our affiliation, however, goes deeper than addressing the biological necessities of life. Nature has provided spiritual, aesthetic, and philosophical pillars for the growth and expression of human culture (Haenn & Wilk, 2006).

Wilson (1984; 1993) has bemoaned that this historic and evolutionary tie of humans to nature is being eroded. In further work, Wilson (1993) highlighted that the loss of a connection to nature contributes to psychic deprivation and degradation of the human mind. Medical research has clearly identified the restorative values of nature in patient recovery rates. A 2005 survey of eight European cities showed that residents having access to green areas are three times more apt to be active and 40 per cent less likely to be obese (Basaraba, 2012). Koss and Kingsley (2010) found that volunteers engaged in citizen science programmes in marine protected areas in Victoria, Australia not only connected with nature but also reported feelings of mental and physical wellbeing. Further, volunteers felt their monitoring efforts generated personal satisfaction through their contributions and increased feelings of enjoyment by connecting to nature and socialising with others. Further evidence supporting the assertion that contact with nature promotes health was summarised by Maller (2006), and Berman (2012) suggests that the brain relaxes in nature. A simple walk in nature could improve memory and mood in depressed people. In a natural setting the brain enters into a state of contemplative attention that is restorative or refreshing while in anurban setting the brain is bombarded with distractions that force attention systems into a state of constant alertness. Experiencing nature has to be real, incorporating all the senses; virtual experiences alone are not enough, but can add to the awareness level of those who experience the real thing.

The rupture of our connection with the natural environment is caused by a number of factors that began with the growth of urbanisation in the world. It is harder for people to get to and experience natural places when the majority of the global population lives in urban settings. Three-quarters of the European population live in urban environments, while in North America and Australia, it is more than 80 per cent and similarly Colombia is over 75 per cent and South Africa is at 62 per cent (US Central Intelligence, 2012). The opportunity to connect with nature is frequently limited to the few city parks and other remnants of green spaces found within or adjacent to the world’s urban spaces.

Urbanisation as a cause of disconnection with nature is compounded by permeating attitudes that preach fear of the unknown. The devaluation of nature in the media compounded by doomsday messages around losses of biodiversity and effects of climate change create a conscious and subconscious aversion to the outdoors. Wilderness has become feared as the place where wild beasts roam and is thus avoided (Nelson & Callicott, 2008).

Further, in the developing world, economic breakthroughs are creating a new well-off middle-class with urban values. In the developed world, immigrants are becoming an increasingly large segment of the population. New immigrants often have little experience with nature or certainly the institution of protected areas. On arrival in their new country, their focus is on building up their economic status and providing for the well-being of their families and adjusting to new cultural realities (Buija 2008).
Perhaps the most significant reality that separates humanity from physically connecting and thus understanding and appreciating nature is prolonged screen time. TV, computers, tablets and smart phones, which dominate developed nations’ use of the web, are drawing our attention away from the natural world that surrounds us. Estimates in Canada suggest children spend approximately five hours (Pimento & Kernested, 2010) to as much as eight hours per day in front of audio visual screens (Active Healthy Kids Canada, 2010). Medical professionals are suggesting that a limit of around two hours per day or less would assure better health, sleep and social skills. Spending sedentary time in front of a screen occurs at the expense of physical activity and exploration of the outdoors. The domination of screens in our daily lives influences our lifestyles, particularly amongst youth and young people, and has longer term repercussions. Research is linking limited physical activity among youth to increased rates of obesity, mental health disorders and undeveloped motor skills1.

The challenge of connecting youth to nature due to a paucity of opportunity to experience outdoors activity is further exacerbated by the disturbing trend where earning an undergraduate biology degree no longer obligates a student to learn anything about actual living organisms (Frazer, 2014). Future natural history teachers may not have the connection and the biophilia for nature to transmit an appreciation of nature, let alone a passion for nature.

The Children & Nature Network (C&NN) has compiled an annotated bibliography listing research and studies that confirm the value and many benefits of connecting to nature. In response, decisions to increase youth connection to nature are being taken by a variety of people and organisations – including individuals, families, agencies, communities and nations – and producing significant results. An example is a New Zealand school that submitted itself to a University of Auckland and Otago University experiment (TVNZ, 2014). School children were given freedom during recess to play, run, slide, jump and climb. Instead of the feared chaos, teachers noted that the children were so engaged with their freedom, it resulted in a marked drop-off of bullying, serious injuries and vandalism (TVNZ, 2014). A further bonus derived was an increased level of concentration in class. This experiment demonstrates that connection to nature is integral to the mental and physical health and well-being of school children with co- benefits including social cohesion.

Although this paper encourages greater connection of young people to nature, locations available to experience nature are limited. In response to environmental and conservation challenges facing the world, global conventions, national policies, stricter regulations and legislation have all been brought into force over the past few decades. One common response was to establish national parks and other forms of protected areas. By 2020 the world has committed to having 17 per cent of the world’s terrestrial and 10 per cent of the marine ecosystems under protection (CBD, 2010). These natural areas provide opportunity for connecting to nature, where a love for nature can be fostered. In addition to managing a growing parks estate, many park agencies are building programmes to encourage more people to visit parks and help build a connection with nature as detailed further in this paper.

However, individuals relate differently to nature’s values depending on their culture and segment of society. For example, a common denominator to most of the world’s religions is the recognition of the spiritual value of nature. Nevertheless, youth see the world differently from adults and connecting to nature needs to be appealing as well as relevant to them requiring their voice to inform our role as adults in assisting their connection to nature. To communicate the message that nature’s values are important must be personal and relevant for each community, be it faith, ethnicity or demographic. The value of nature and the importance of protecting it must be personalised, if not loved, before a constituency of support and connection will develop.

This paper is focused on reviewing the status of efforts in helping youth to connect with nature and exploring opportunities in the future. The IUCN World Parks Congress (WPC) 2014 in Sydney, Australia provides an opportunity to bring together efforts from five continents to focus on how to begin mending our rupture with nature and the specific role of protected areas. More importantly the WPC will serve as a launching platform for a worldwide movement led by youth to inspire, reconnect, and empower the next generation.

Click here to read more about the current STATUS on global trends regarding the changes to childhood activity, connections to nature, and child safety has yielded the beginnings of a worldwide movement to transform this concern, as well as discussions about THE WAY FORWARD.

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