Being and becoming in nature: Defining and measuring connection to nature in young children
Young children often express the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive dimensions of connection to nature differently than adults and older children
Connection to nature (C2N) is a multidimensional construct that includes emotions, behaviors, and cognition. While the academic literature offers a rich body of C2N research, little attention has focused on the early childhood years. This paper addresses this gap by examining the meaning, assessment, and development of connection to nature (C2N) in two- to five-year-old children. The discussion is based on information gleaned from a Connection to Nature Workshop, a literature search focusing on C2N assessment tools, and input from an Expert Advisory Panel on Early Childhood Nature Connection.
Workshop participants evaluated instruments measuring C2N in children and adults. The literature search, conducted prior to the workshop, focused on peer-reviewed articles and book chapters that introduced original C2N assessment tools. Of the 23 tools identified, only 2 were designed for young children. Two additional C2N tools for preschool children were later identified. Elements of C2N addressed in the early childhood assessment tools include awareness, enjoyment, empathy, responsibility, curiosity, preferences, and interactions with nature. The Expert Advisory Panel reviewed the 4 early childhood measures and provided insights into the meaning and development of C2N at the early childhood level.
Perspectives shared by the panel indicate that “early childhood from two to five years deserve a distinct place in the literature on nature connection.” Young children often express the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive dimensions of C2N differently than adults and older children. Other characteristics of C2N for young children identified by the panel include young children's unique way of perceiving the world, the importance of interest and self-direction in their engagement with nature, and the body as their pathway for relating with nature. Both quantity and quality of time in nature play important roles in promoting young children’s C2N. “Quality time in nature includes opportunities for self-directed exploration, multisensory engagement with nature places, the presence of animals, and the supportive influence of peers and adults.” For assessing and/or documenting young children’s C2N, the panel recommended a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches. Also of importance for researchers and educators is understanding “what nature means within the cultural context of the children” and of those studying or working with children.
Additional points highlighted in this paper focus on the contribution of young children to a sustainable future and the importance of access to nature. The first point relates to young children’s "being and becoming" in nature. “Being” in nature can enrich children’s life in the moment and has “the capacity to motivate children to continue to seek out nature as they grow.” “Becoming” in nature helps children learn adult roles in caring for the environment. The second point highlights the importance of influential adults bringing nature to children and taking children out into nature.