Children with a strong connection to nature have higher social emotional learning skills than those with a weaker connection to nature

Lanza, K. ., Alcazar, M. ., Chen, B. ., & Kohl, H. W. , III. (2023). Connection to nature is associated with social-emotional learning of children. Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology, 4.

Most of the research relating to the benefits of nature for children focus on exposure to nature versus connection to nature. This study extends the current research by examining how children’s connection to nature is related to their social-emotional learning skills. Connection to nature is defined as “one’s emotional affinity towards the physical world and all it comprises.”

A population of 138 students (age 8-10) from three elementary schools in Austin, Texas participated in this study. These schools were located in neighborhoods with relatively low levels of nature and consisting primarily of economically disadvantaged Latino households. While the grounds of each of these schools included a “park”, the level of greenness on the grounds differed. The “intervention” school had added green features (i.e., trees, wildflower meadow, nature trail); the “low-green” school had relatively low amounts of historical green features (i.e., trees); and the “high-green” school had relatively high amounts of traditional green features (i.e., trees, wildlife habitat garden, nature trail). About half (48%) of the participating children attended the intervention school. The remaining students were almost evenly divided between the low-green (27%) and high-green (25%) schools. All of the participating children completed two “connection to nature” instruments: Connection to Nature Index (CNI) and Inclusion of Nature in Self (INS) scale. They also completed a 10-item questionnaire designed to measure five areas of social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

Results showed a positive and significant association between the connection to nature scores as measured by the CNI and the INS. Results also showed that connection to nature as measured by CNI was positively and significantly associated with the overall SEL skills, self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills. Connection to nature as measured by the INS scale did not show significant associations with overall SEL skills or any of the five SEL competencies. The lack of statistically significant associations between the INS scale and SEL skills may be due to the fact that the INS scale is more complex than the CNS and thus more difficult for the participating students to understand.

The findings as measured by CNI show that “children with a strong connection to nature have higher SEL skills than those with a weaker connection to nature.” This research thus indicates that nature connection may positively impact the social-emotional development of children. It also suggests that “physical exposure to nature may not be enough for children to connect to nature.” Public health interventions for promoting youth development would thus do well to go beyond simply exposing children to nature. Such interventions should also promote children’s psychological connection to nature.

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