Research Summary

Plant yourself where language blooms: Direct experiences of nature changes how parents and children talk about nature

Direct experience of nature provides an optimal context for children to learn the language of nature

Children, Youth and Environments

This study investigated the influence of direct versus indirect experience of nature on parent-child talk. The study was based on a concern about the growing disconnection between children and nature and the related reduction in children's use and understanding of language to describe the natural world. Another issue addressed in this study relates to people’s tendency to focus on animals as opposed to plants or plant life. This phenomenon – or bias -- is referred to as “plant blindness.”

Eighteen parent-child dyads participated in this study which took place at Bute Park and Arboretum in Cardiff, Wales. Bute Park contains a river corridor, walking trails, the Arboretum and an indoor visitor center with child-friendly displays, books, and craft activities -- many of which relate to the park’s wildlife and habitat. For this study, the parent-child dyads spent approximately 15 minutes outside in the park (the direct experience condition) and inside the visitor center (the indirect experience condition). The order of experience (direct/indirect) was counter-balanced across the group of participants. Both parents and children wore head-mounted video cameras in each setting. Their instructions were to “go on a treasure hunt and see what you can find.”

Logistic mixed effect models were used to compare the diversity of parent-child language across the two conditions (direct/indirect experience of nature). An initial analysis indicated that the parents and children produced a proportionally larger number of nature versus nonnature word types in the direct versus indirect experience setting. A second analysis indicated that the parents and children produced proportionally more plant-related (versus animal-related) nature word types during the direct experience. A third analysis focused on the kinds of nature word types produced in the study. Word types used by four or more participants were referred to as “high-frequency nature terms.” While almost all of the high-frequency nature terms were relatively generic (e.g., bird, tree, flower, butterfly), there were exceptions in the parents’ speech during the direct experience condition where more specific nature-related terms were used (e.g., daisy, dandelion, swan).

These findings indicate that the unstructured natural setting of the park provided a direct experience advantage in terms of fostering nature-rich language. The findings also indicate that plant blindness was reduced during the direct experience of nature, as both parents and children used a wider range of plant-related terms and more specific types of words while exploring the park than they did in the visitor center. The authors propose that the multisensory experience associated with direct experience of nature can lead to a greater awareness of plant life. A natural setting allows people to not only see but also touch, smell, and hear plants move in the breeze. In response to these sensory experiences, people are more likely to view plants as living entities versus as a static backdrop.

This study is consistent with other studies attesting to the benefits of learning about the natural world in outdoor settings. A positive link between knowledge of nature terms and appreciation of the natural world highlights the importance of this study for conservation. It would be well, then, for urban planners as well as educationalists to consider the unique affordances of direct experience with natural environments for children and families.