The aim of this study was to investigate how children make sense of and assign meaning to their interactions with natural spaces. The study also explored children's understandings of the importance that engaging with nature has on their subjective well-being. Previous studies document multiple benefits children gain from interacting with nature, but few have asked children directly about what nature means to them and how it influences their well-being.
Twenty-eight children, age 12 and 14, participated in a series of group interviews facilitated by the researchers. The children were selected from three primary schools from three socio-economically diverse communities located in both rural and urban geographical locations of South Africa. The interviews were conducted on the school grounds over a four-month period with each group of interviewees meeting three times. Questions during the first session focused primarily on children's view of happiness and what they did for fun, but also included a question about what they understood about the natural environment and natural spaces. Sessions two and three focused more on what children thought about nature, what they did in natural places, and the importance they placed on time in nature. The interviews were taped and transcribed verbatim.
Four themes emerged from a discourse analysis of the tapes: Safety and Natural Spaces, Degradation of Nature and Efforts Toward Sustainable Development, Appreciation of Natural Spaces, and Nature and Children's Subjective Well-being. The issue of safety in natural spaces was addressed throughout the discussions, yet the way in which safety concerns were experienced and described by the children differed in relation to the type of community in which they lived. The children's concepts of nature also differed according to where they lived. Children from low SES communities described nature as any space with elements of nature, including designated play spaces for children and other outdoor spaces (such as back allies) close to home. For them, such spaces posed real threats and were often avoided because of violence and abuse the children had experienced or knew they might encounter. Children from middle income communities described nature more in terms of “wild nature” in places they had frequented and become familiar with, such as the forest or beach. For these children, it was “wild” nature, not people, that posed a threat to their safety.
The children from all three groups expressed concern about pollution, but the way it impacted them related directly to the state of their communities. For children from low-income communities, polluted natural spaces placed limits on where they could play and explore their environments. This was generally not the case for children from other communities. All three groups expressed enthusiasm about their school camp-related experiences and talked about how exploring and learning in nature was associated with feelings of happiness and how their camp experiences fostered social bonds.
This study indicates that nature is something that children value and have an attachment to. This study also indicates that children's engagement with nature has a significant influence on their social and emotional well-being.