Access, Engagement, and Connection to Nature and the Implications for Child Wellbeing
Amongst the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic were several societal shifts that many people are likely interested in maintaining. For some families, this included spending more time in nature for both leisure and educational purposes. While some parents reported that their child’s connection to nature increased because of having more time due to Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions, this was not the case for all children, particularly those living in urban areas without easy and safe access to outdoor spaces as well as many families in low socioeconomic situations. As with many other aspects of life, the pandemic made the disparity in nature access for children abundantly clear.
This matters for many reasons, not least because of what is known about the beneficial impacts to wellbeing that are associated with spending time outdoors. Research involving both adults and children suggest the presence of wide-ranging restorative impacts of being able to access, engage with, and connect to green spaces. Access to nature considers the amount of nature available in one’s physical environment and whether an individual can spend time in that nature if desired. Engagement with nature involves spending time in or amongst green spaces. Connection to nature is a psychological sense of oneness with nature. Research into the impacts of nature on wellbeing tend to be discussed through one of these concepts.
In children, access to and engagement with nature has been linked with improved mood and behaviour, including reduced hyperactivity and conduct problems. Additionally, green space in residential areas has also been linked to a lower prevalence of anxiety, depression, and other mental health difficulties in younger children. Even going to school at a site with natural spaces can have important impacts for focus, social development and stress reduction.
Having a strong psychological connection to nature may be an important factor for encouraging children to develop pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours. While higher levels of connection to nature in children is associated with increased empathy for the natural world, this may also be related to increased worry regarding climate-related issues. Concerningly, connection to nature seems to decline in the early teenage years. It is possible that incorporating nature-based learning at secondary school would address this decline in nature interest while providing important wellbeing benefits to young people. Additionally, according to a 2020 Global Action Plan survey, young people experience negative impacts to wellbeing when they perceive that ‘others don’t care about the environment’. Given this, the Nature Premium would incorporate nature access more widely at school, so that children and young people are seeing others, particularly adults, engaging with nature and caring about the environment.
Research involving both adults and children suggest the presence of wide-ranging restorative impacts of being able to access, engage with, and connect to green spaces.
The benefits of time outdoors extends to all people, regardless of neurotype. There are well-established links between time in natural surroundings and improved focus for children with ADHD. Additionally, time in outdoor settings such as Forest Schools may have positive impacts on behaviour for children identified as exhibiting withdrawn behaviours. Less research exists to determine the impacts of time outside on autistic children, though the initial work seems to indicate that for some autistic children, learning and playing outside can support social, academic, emotional, and physical development and provide a more inclusive and welcoming space.
In educational settings, there are a variety of ways to engage children with the outdoors from play times that give access to enriched natural environments to nature-based learning as a structured approach that involves learning in natural environments and/or with natural materials. Perhaps requiring the most specialism, the Forest School ethos is a child-led, inquiry-based, holistic approach that involves taking children into woodland spaces over the course of many weeks. In the UK, the Forest School Association is the professional body and voice for Forest Schools, promoting and supporting best practice, cohesion, and ‘Quality Forest School for All.’
Incorporating nature-based learning into the school day can support children to manage their own wellbeing. For some children, school-based nature access might be the only time during their week that they can safely spend time in nature. This is particularly why the Nature Premium is such a compelling and timely idea. The Nature Premium would support schools in getting children into nature to allow them to enjoy the mental health benefits, connect with nature, and develop positive nature-related behaviour patterns for the future. Most importantly, the Nature Premium would enable this access for all children regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic status. By incorporating time outside into both break and lesson times and encouraging connection to nature in children through the Nature Premium, educators and schools can play an important role in allowing all children to access the wellbeing-related benefits of nature.