Research Summary

Push and pull factors determine adolescents' intentions of participation in nature observation: Reconnecting local students with nature in China

Factors Driving Chinese Students to Participate in Outdoor Programs

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Experiences in nature can influence an individual’s connection to nature, and consequently desire to spend additional time outside. Research indicates that children have been partaking in outdoor activities less. This “nature-deficit disorder” means that children can be disconnected from ecological problems, and thereby be less motivated to solve such problems. One significant predictor of participating in outdoor activities is past experience in nature. In rapidly urbanizing China, students are burdened with heavy schoolwork and have limited access to nature. As a result, children have little time or ability to get outdoors. This research examines the internal and external factors behind Chinese students’ decisions to join a nature observation club.

This research is predicated on the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB). TPB says that someone’s intentions and behaviors can be predicted by three factors: 1) attitudes towards a behavior, 2) belief that others around someone are partaking in the behavior and expect them to do so as well, and 3) that the behavior is not too difficult to partake in. The researchers propose that students may take more pro-environmental behaviors due to participating in the nature observation club. According to TPB, behavior change would happen because participants would learn that the pro-environmental behaviors are not difficult, as well as see their peers in the nature clubs caring for the environment and behaving similarly. This article explains that students would be more likely to join the nature clubs if they already have a high level of connectedness to nature and positive attitudes toward the environment.

This study took place in the Xishuangbanna region of southwest China. This region is highly biodiverse but the area has recently and rapidly urbanized. The researchers selected 8th graders from 10 middle schools in the region (out of 43 total) to participate in this study. This age group was chosen because they have the skills and knowledge to perform the tasks required by the study, but are still in a very formative period of growth and development for environmental attitudes. For the study, the researchers established voluntary nature observation clubs at each participating school for 8 months. These nature observation clubs were EE programs, and students could partake in exploration activities, including photography, bird watching, collecting insect specimens. A total of 340 students chose to join the clubs and 684 did not participate. The researchers collected data from all students at these 10 schools (1,024) using questionnaires. The survey questions asked about connectedness to nature, enjoyment of plants, enjoyment of animals, and prior nature experiences, as well as collected demographic information. The researchers also conducted follow-up interviews with 101 participants and 113 nonparticipants two months after the end of the program. The questionnaire data were analyzed using statistics to compare students in the program and students who did not participate. The interview data were analyzed using keyword frequency to identify factors pushing students towards or pulling them away from engaging with nature.

The results showed that each school varied significantly with overall connectedness to nature, plant and animal enjoyment, and prior nature experience. Participants in the nature observation club exhibited higher connectedness to nature, plant and animal enjoyment, and prior nature experience. The strongest predictor of choosing to join the nature observation club was nature connectedness. This supports the TPB, which says that attitudes can often predict behavioral intentions.

Prior nature experiences positively predicted participation in the program. Through the interviews, the researchers explored why students chose to join (or not join) the program. Among nature observation club participants, students emphasized internal motivations; no one cited any external pull factors towards nature. Rather, participants in the club explained their reasons for joining included interest in biology, curiosity, amusement, exploration, and relaxation. For those who did not participate, the most common internal factors were lack of interest in plants or animals, conformity with classmates, or low confidence regarding ability to perform the observations. The most common external factors for choosing not to participate were schoolwork, other time constraints, and distance from woods and nature. These drivers for participation support findings from other, similar studies conducted in Europe and North America.

The researchers acknowledged that the self-reported nature of the responses means that some data may be biased or inaccurate. Additionally, this study took place in China, and the results would likely differ in other locations.

The researchers recommend a broad-based coalition between organizations, policy-makers, educators, and households in an effort to create more time for students to be outdoors. The researchers found that internal factors can influence participation just as much as external barriers to nature. Thus, programs are needed to address student lack of interest or confidence in getting outdoors.

The Bottom Line

As many places urbanize, children are spending less time outside. Time in nature is critical to foster positive attitudes towards nature, among other benefits. This study explored why 8th grade Chinese students chose to join or not join a nature observation club. Supporting research in other locations, the researchers found that many factors drive a student’s decision to partake or not partake in an outdoor program. Some motivations are internal, such as curiosity, and other barriers are external, such as homework. While some factors are hard to change, low interest or lack of confidence may be improved through increased exposure to nature. Programs that create comfortable spaces for nature experiences could foster connectedness to nature among children.