Building Connectedness to Nature: An Evaluation of Three Get to Know Programs

Bruni, C. M., Winter, P. L., Schultz, W., Omoto, A. M., & Tabanico, J. J. (2017). Getting to know nature: evaluating the effects of the Get to Know Program on children's connectedness with nature. Environmental Education Research, 23, 43 - 62.

With the rapid advent of new technologies and media outlets, youth are spending less time outdoors and more time in the built environment. By spending less time in nature, youth have fewer opportunities to cultivate knowledge about their natural surroundings. Studies show that there has been a general decline in the degree of connectedness that people feel with nature, and this decreased connectedness could be related to the changes in the amount of time that youth spend outdoors and learning about the natural world. An increased disconnect with nature could have a profound impact on conservation and pro-environment actions and policies. Thus, programs that effectively enhance people's connectedness with nature could play an important role in ensuring a more sustainable future.

Get to Know is an international program that aims to enhance nature connectedness by engaging youth in a variety of activities that build environmental awareness and encourage environmental action. To gauge the effectiveness of Get to Know program activities on enhancing nature connectedness, the researchers evaluated three of the primary Get to Know activities: Creative Arts Contest, Natural Treasure Adventure, and Virtual Hike. The Creative Arts Contest encourages youth to draw inspiration from nature-based activities – such as hiking, visiting museums, visiting aquariums, etc. – to produce a piece of art. The Natural Treasure Adventure engages youth in an outdoor hiking adventure. Virtual Hike is a computer-based program that takes youth on virtual hikes and provides information about species along the hike.

The researchers conducted three separate studies in Southern California on each of these Get to Know activities. For all three studies, they used an Implicit Association Test for Nature (IAT) tool – a computer game called FlexiTwins – to measure implicit connectedness to nature. Study participants played FlexiTwins before and after completing the activity, and the researchers used paired t-tests to gauge statistically significant changes in implicit connectedness.

The Creative Arts Contest study engaged 178 students (grades 3-6) from 6 classrooms in nature experiences of their choosing over the course of 30 days. Of these 178 students, 86 chose to create and submit nature-inspired artwork to the Creative Arts Contest. Paired t-test results showed a significantly greater increase in implicit connectedness with nature for those students who submitted artwork for the contest as opposed to students who chose not to enter the contest. The Natural Treasure Adventure study engaged 35 youth (grades K-10) from local youth organizations in an outdoor hiking adventure. Along the hike, youth read plaques about different plant and animal species and did crayon rubbings. Paired t-test results indicate that participation in the outdoor hike did not impact implicit connectedness to nature. The Virtual Hike study engaged 50 youth (grades 3-8) from local youth organizations in a computer-based virtual hike with informational icons along the trail. Participants spent at least 30 minutes on the virtual hike. Analysis of pre- and post- FlexiTwins tests indicated that participation in the virtual hike did not impact implicit connectedness to nature.

Though the Creative Arts Contest was the only activity in which participation was associated with an increase in implicit connectedness to nature, the other two studies may have been limited by small sample sizes, an emphasis on carrying out a task as opposed to spending time with the natural environment, and/or the short time frame for participation.

The authors emphasize the potential power of art to enhance connectedness with nature, but they recommend further research on the long-term impacts of the activities on youth's sense of connectedness. They also recommend further exploration on the different outcomes associated with hiking versus virtual hiking. Finally, they recommend exploring the potential of identifying Get to Know-type activities that are even more effective at connecting youth to nature.

The Bottom Line

<p>Youth programs that effectively enhance participants' connectedness with nature can be very important in building a population that feels a sense of care, responsibility, and stewardship for the environment. For this study, the researchers evaluated the effectiveness of three Get to Know program activities – a nature-inspired arts contest, an outdoor hike, and a virtual hike – in strengthening participants' implicit connectedness with nature. The arts contest was the only activity that demonstrated a link between participation and enhanced connectedness with nature, suggesting that art may be a powerful tool in connecting youth with nature. However, the limits of the other studies warrant further exploration into whether outdoor and virtual hiking can enhance implicit connectedness, as well.</p>

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