New Research Sheds Light on Pathways for Nature Connection

A group of children stands outside and smiles at the camera

Connection to nature is an important pathway for conservation behavior. Strong connections to the environment form most easily in childhood when exposure to environmental education is more common. Experiences ranging from nature-based programs to ecotourism can help develop an emotional connection to nature. As the need for public engagement with conservation increases due to a changing climate, understanding what factors drive strong relationships to the environment is really important. New research from two studies conducted at North Carolina State University highlight two very different cases addressing this need -- one with children in North Carolina, and one with tourism in Antarctica.

Two kids smile at an older man holding fishing poles

One key issue in understanding how to promote connection to nature is accurate measurement, especially among youth. Good evaluation and accurate measurement of complex topics like connection to nature can make sure programs are as effective as possible. When it comes to measurement and evaluation, language really matters. For instance, “nature” might not mean the same thing as “outdoors” or “outside” to everyone. There’s an ongoing discussion around the language practitioners and researchers use to promote and measure connection to nature. This is especially true when it comes to language that is inclusive of racial and ethnic minorities and among different gender identities. This is an issue in part because of histories of race- and gender-based discrimination in education, outdoor spaces, and the environmental movement.  

A young person stares just past the camera

One study in North Carolina wanted to find out how elementary-age children may receive the terms “nature” and “outdoors” differently. Researchers gave elementary students one of two versions of a survey measuring connection and emotional responses to “nature” and “the outdoors.” In general, connection to nature did not significantly vary when measured with the term “the outdoors” compared to the term “nature” on a survey, even across different racial, ethnic, or gender identities. There were differences, however, in the emotional connection that children associated with each term. In particular, for female-identifying students, the term “nature” prompted more feelings of calmness than excitement, and more comfort than nervousness, as compared to “the outdoors.” These findings suggest that though differences may be small and nuanced, children may react differently to experiences pitched as in “nature” versus “the outdoors.” More research is needed to ensure that programs are inclusive and inviting to all children.

A young person smiles with their eyes closed while standing in a field

In addition to generating inclusive language and associated measurements of connection to nature, another consideration is how to move people along the spectrum from experience to connection to action.  For this question, NC State researchers turned to a more southern and much more isolated setting, Antarctic tourism. Although Antarctica is far removed from the daily outdoor experiences of youth in the U.S., there are important lessons to gain from studying more extreme examples of ecotourism. The tourism industry in Antarctica promotes a program called “Antarctic Ambassadorship,” that emphasizes how the powerful emotional and educational experiences people have in Antarctica can increase their connection to nature and advocacy for Antarctic conservation. Through interviewing tour guides, researchers were able to identify four key components of “ambassadorship” behavior, that if fostered effectively, could facilitate behavior change in any setting. The first is the possession of adequate knowledge and skills to engage in environmentally-friendly behaviors. The second is a sense of community that can provide support and encouragement towards taking action. The third is a sense of responsibility to take action. And, finally, an attachment to place. While these core components emerged from a study focused on Antarctic tourism, they are also essential aspects of what make environmental and outdoor education experiences meaningful and long-lasting for young people spending time in nature here in the U.S.

As climate change continues to highlight the critical and urgent need for the public to engage with and advocate for environmental conservation, these two respective studies should contribute to the growing body of knowledge around facilitating conservation behavior among our youngest generations.