Research Summary

From aversion to affinity in a preschooler's relationships with nature

Social relationships and direct experiences with nature serve as catalysts in shaping a child’s connections with nature


This study explored how participation in a nature preschool influenced one child’s connectedness to nature. An understanding of the various dimensions of biophilia helped to frame the study. Biophilia refers to the affinity of humans for other living things – an affinity which can be shaped and strengthened (or diminished) through experiences and social interactions.

The focus of this case study was a young girl, Ava, who attended a nature preschool two full days per week for three months. Ava was three when she started the program and four by the end of the study. The nature preschool was located at a nature center with access to acres of land and trails featuring a variety of local ecosystems. Researchers used behavior observations, photos, video, conversations with the teacher, and the child’s own voice to gather information about changes in the child’s nature-related attitudes and behaviors.

Over the three-month period, Ava’s responses to nature changed from aversion to curiosity to appreciation. Social interactions with peers and adults played an important role in bringing about this change. Ava had many opportunities to closely observe how the words and actions of her peers and the adults working with the nature preschool expressed affinity for and interest in the natural world.  The curiosity of other children seemed to be especially influential in stimulating Ava’s own interest in nature.

Direct experiences with nature also supported Ave’s connectedness with nature and her attitudes towards it. The researchers identified three ways in which this occurred. First, direct experiences allowed Ava to apply and practice emerging understandings that she gained through indirect learning, which was primarily through her interactions with peers and adults. Second, direct experiences offered opportunities to become comfortable with elements of nature through encounters that were frequent, long enough in duration, and consistently accessible. Third, such experiences afforded Ava the opportunity to ease herself into increasingly more challenging/risky nature-related situations.

Ava’s relationship with nature when she first entered the program was typically aversive and anthropocentric, reflecting negativistic dimensions of biophilia.  Three months later, Ava’s attitudes and behaviors reflected more positive and biocentric dimensions of biophilia.  She was demonstrating curiosity, wonder, a desire for direct contact with natural elements, appreciation, and care for other living beings. This study, then, showed how one child’s dispositions toward nature gradually evolved during a nature preschool experience from aversion or expressed discomfort to empathetic expressions of care.

While peers and direct experiences in a natural environment played important roles in nurturing Ava’s connectedness to nature, her attitudes and behaviors toward nature were also mediated by the adults in the nature preschool. The adults, in this case, had the expertise and experience in early childhood and environmental education to promote connectedness to nature through an intentional but non-directive approach.