Appreciative outdoor activities during childhood promote connection to nature and environmental-citizenship behaviors

Hoover, K. S. (2021). Children in nature: Exploring the relationship between childhood outdoor experience and environmental stewardship. Environmental Education Research, 27, 894-910.

Research focusing on pathways to pro-environmental behaviors has generally involved adults sharing information about their childhood experiences. This study differs by asking high school students about their childhood outdoor activities and by differentiating between appreciative, consumptive, and abusive activities while outdoors. Appreciative activities “involve attempts to enjoy the natural environment without altering it.” Examples include hiking and nature photography. Consumptive activities involve taking and consuming or using something from nature. Examples include hunting and fishing. Abusive outdoor activities result in environmental degradation and include such activities as snowmobiling or off-road driving. Classifying childhood outdoor activities into appreciative, consumptive, and abusive types allows researchers to consider the nature of the activity (not just time outdoors) in determining possible connections to pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors.

This study involved a group of 140 racially mixed, suburban, high school students in Texas. The participants completed a survey assessing their childhood outdoor activities, connection to nature, environmental attitudes, and four types of pro-environmental behaviors.  Childhood outdoor activities were assessed by asking participants to indicate the frequency with which they had participated in 17 different outdoor activities during their childhood years. Items on the list included appreciative, consumptive, and abusive types of activities.  The Connectedness to Nature Scale assessed the students' connection to nature; the revised NEP (New Ecological Paradigm) Scale assessed their environmental attitudes; and the Pro-environmental Behavior Scale (PEBS) assessed their pro-environmental behaviors in the areas of conservation behaviors, environmental citizenship, food choices, and transportation-related behaviors.

Results showed that, of the three categories of outdoor activities, only appreciative outdoor activities were positively related to the students' connection to nature. Appreciative types of childhood outdoor activities were also positively related to environmental citizenship behaviors. Students who participated more in consumptive outdoor activities were slightly less likely to have a pro-environmental attitude. The frequency of participation in appreciative or abusive outdoor activities seemed to make no difference in students' environmental attitudes. Conservation behaviors – such as turning off lights, limiting air conditioning use, or conserving water – were influenced positively and significantly by their connection to nature. Students' NEP scores and environmental citizenship behaviors were also positively and significantly related. While results showed some positive connections between food choices and environmental attitudes, there seemed to be no connection between students' transportation-related behaviors and any of the other study variables.

This study contributes to the academic literature by differentiating between types of childhood outdoor activities influencing connection to nature and environmental attitudes and behaviors. One of the major findings relates to appreciative outdoor experiences playing an important role in shaping ones' connection to the natural world. Not all outdoor experiences do this. Appreciative outdoor activities also increased the likelihood of environmental citizenship behaviors. These results highlight the importance of Increasing student time outdoors engaged in appreciative activities. Doing so can increase the likelihood of stronger connections with nature and engagement in pro-environmental behaviors later in life.

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