Research Summary

The effects of contact with nature during outdoor environmental education on students' wellbeing, connectedness to nature and pro-sociality

Contact with nature during outdoor environmental education promotes students’ wellbeing, connectedness to nature, and pro-sociality

Frontiers in Psychology

School-based outdoor environmental education programs are often based on the understanding that contact with nature will promote nature connectedness, which is a strong predictor of pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. Some research suggests that contact with nature may also promote human subjective well-being. Such research, however, has focused primarily on adults versus children. To determine if the same benefits apply to children, this research analyzed both the environmental and wellbeing outcomes of contact with nature as experienced by students participating in an outdoor environmental education program.

Two studies were conducted with students participating in a non-residential school-based outdoor environmental education program in Italy. Both studies involved an intervention group (participating students) and a control group (students attending the same schools as the intervention group but not participating in the outdoor program). A total of 407 students (age 9-10) participated in Study 1, with 154 in the intervention group and 253 in the control group. A total of 338 students (age 11) participated in Study 2, with 170 in the intervention group and 168 in the control group. Students in the intervention groups participated in a variety of guided nature-focused activities during a series of four visits to a natural protected area over a period of several months (March – May, 2019). All of the students (in both the intervention and control groups) completed a questionnaire measuring connectedness to nature, psycho-physical wellbeing, pro-environmental attitudes, students’ life satisfaction, pro-social behavior, empathy, and anxiety before and after the outdoor program.

Questionnaire results showed that the outdoor program -- which provided contact with nature -- had positive outcomes on psycho-physical wellbeing, on connectedness to nature, and on pro-social behavior of students in the intervention group, compared to the control group. Results also showed an association between connectedness to nature and pro-environmental attitudes and behavior. There were some differences in outcomes between intervention students in Study 1 and Study 2. The Study 1 group reported higher gains in a sense of connectedness to nature than the Study 2 group. This may be due to the fact that activities for the Study 1 group had a stronger focus on the relations between human beings and nature. The Study 2 group reported higher gains in pro-sociality than the Study 1 group, possibly reflecting a stronger activity focus on the development of personal and social skills. Overall scores in the areas of empathy, life satisfaction, and anxiety did not differentiate the intervention and control groups. The researchers suggested that this may be due to the timing and intensity of the experience of contact with nature. The once-a-month visits may not have provided an intense and deep enough experience in nature to make a difference in those areas.

Further implications and future directions of related research and practice are discussed by the researchers. One of their suggestions for further research is to examine the role of specific outdoor education experiences on desired outcomes.