Research Summary

Responding to nature: Natural environments improve parent-child communication

The natural environment enhanced the interactive aspects of parent-child communication

Journal of Environmental Psychology

Research on the human benefits of nature tends to focus on how natural environments affect individuals. This study is unique in its focus on how natural environments affect human interactions, specifically communication between parents and children. Eighteen parent-child pairs participated in this study. The children (age 3-4) and their parents wore head-mounted video cameras during 15-minute explorations in two different environments – an outdoor natural environment and a nature-focused indoor environment. Both environments are located in a city center park in Cardiff, Wales. The park includes a range of trails, an arboretum, and a river corridor. The park also includes an indoor education center with wildlife exhibits and child-focused craft activities. The two environments, then, have similar themes and both offer similar affordances for hands-on activities. The video cameras worn by the children and the parents captured their verbal communication in both the indoor and outdoor settings. The recordings were transcribed verbatim.

The analysis of the parent-child verbal exchanges focused on turn-taking and responsiveness as key indicators of communication quality. Turn-taking episodes were defined as “conversational turns that are meaningfully linked.” Responsiveness referred to “instances where speakers follow in and respond to the content of their conversational partner’s utterances.” Communication scores, calculated from the transcriptions, were based on the number of utterances, the length of connected communication episodes, and the proportion of responses.

Findings showed that the children were significantly more talkative in the natural environment than in the indoor environment and that parent-child connected communication episodes were significantly longer in the natural environment.  Additionally, both the parents and the children produced a proportionally higher number of responses in the natural environment than in the indoor environment.  The grammatical complexity of parent and child utterances was consistent across the two settings, and there were no significant differences between the settings in the quantity of parent utterances.

These findings highlight the importance of physical environments in communicating with others. In this study, the natural environment enhanced the interactive aspects of parent-child communication. This was evident in the increased responsiveness and connectedness of communication in the natural environment versus the indoor environment. These findings support other research studies demonstrating positive links between natural environments and the psychological functioning of individuals. This research makes a unique contribution to the academic literature by demonstrating that natural environments benefit social interactions as well as individual development.