RALEIGH, N.C. — It’s generally accepted that spending time outside in nature is an integral part of a happy, healthy childhood. That being said, researchers from North Carolina State University find that not all outdoor activities are created equal when it comes to helping a child form a bond with nature.
Their study concludes that solitary outdoor activities, like fishing, hunting, or just wandering, are essential components for establishing a strong connection between a child and nature. Once lone activities like these have cultivated a sense of comfort and belonging with nature, more social activities can serve to reinforce that bond.
Simply put, researchers suggest introducing kids to nature by themselves, with proper supervision of course. Then, once youngsters are comfortable around trees, bugs, and animals, they will be in good shape to join group activities.
Disconnecting from technology
These findings feel particularly timely, the study’s authors say, considering just how many modern distractions are out there these days enticing kids to stay inside. Between smartphones, streaming services, and video games, children have never had more excuses to say “maybe tomorrow” about going outside.
“In order to create a strong bond with nature, you need to provide kids with an opportunity to be alone in nature, or to experience nature in a way that they can personally connect with it, but you need to reinforce that with social experiences either with peers or adults,” says corresponding study author Kathryn Stevenson in a university release.
A total of 1,285 children (ages 9-12) took part in this research. Study authors designed their surveys to flush out which activities help kids feel comfortable in nature. More specifically, researchers asked children about a variety of activities (hiking, fishing, camping, etc.), as well as their overall thoughts on nature.
An analysis of all those responses revealed a pattern; solitary activities usually helped kids form an initial bond with nature. Social activities (camping, playing sports) however, tend to be more associated with strengthening those bonds.
“We saw that there were different combinations of specific activities that could build a strong connection to nature; but a key starting point was being outside, in a more solitary activity,” Stevenson explains.
Nature’s motivating effect for children
According to first study author Rachel Szczytko, a former environmental education research assistant at NC State and current employee at the San Francisco-based Pisces Foundation, the study’s authors weren’t all that surprised by these findings.
“We have seen that when people who go into environmentally focused careers reflect on their lives, they describe having formational experiences outdoors during childhood, like walking on a favorite trail or exploring the creek by their home,” she says. “We know that these kind of meaningful life experiences are motivating going forward. So we expected that when children are doing something more solitary, contemplative, when they’re noticing what’s around them, and have a heightened sense of awareness, they are more likely having these formative experiences and are developing more comfort and affinity for the outdoors.”
To be clear, no one is saying a parent should leave their child alone in the woods for hours at a time. The findings do suggest that something as simple as a parent allowing their child to lead the way during a hike can go a long way.
“When you think about recreation opportunities for kids, social activities are often covered; people are signing their kids up for sports, camp and scouts,” Stevenson adds. “Maybe we need more programming to allow children to be more contemplative in nature, or opportunities to establish a personal connection. That could be silent sits, or it could be activities where children are looking or observing on their own. It could mean sending kids to the outdoors to make observations on their own. It doesn’t mean kids should be unsupervised, but adults could consider stepping back and letting kids explore on their own.”
Learning to care about more about the planet
Helping children form a strong bond with nature can have a domino effect that offers benefits for years and years. If the child feels comfortable in nature, they’ll naturally spend more time outdoors, which is linked to improved mental health, mood, and physical fitness.
“There are all kinds of benefits from building connections to nature and spending time outside,” Stevenson concludes. “One of the benefits we’re highlighting is that children who have a strong connection to nature are more likely to want to take care of the environment in the future.”
The study is published in the Journal of Environmental Education.