Significant life experiences (SLE) research suggests that time outdoors during childhood and adult role models are two primary factors promoting pro-environmental behavior. What has not been addressed in the SLE research is how environmentally committed people's relationship to nature changes over time, including the time spent in nature and the quality of that experience. This study addressed this gap by considering whether quantity and quality of experiences in nature remain relatively static or change throughout the lives of environmentally committed individuals.
Twelve environmentally committed Duke University faculty participated in semi-structured interviews focusing on their relationships with nature throughout their life. The interviews were structured around the following questions: How did you become interested in the environment? What type of connection to nature did you have as a child? What type of connection to nature do you have now? Do you have an emotional connection to nature? Do you have a spiritual connection to nature? The development of these questions was guided by a review of the literature and was designed to gather information about life history experiences in the context of developing an environmental identity. The interviews, which lasted 45 to 90 minutes, were recorded, transcribed, and thematically analyzed with the aid of qualitative data analysis software.
Findings showed that the amount of time spent in nature, and the quality of the nature-related experiences, changed over time. Almost all participants talked in great detail about their childhood experiences in nature, while providing much less detail about their adult nature-related experiences. A few, however, emphasized the importance of college and post-college experiences over those of childhood. At least one of the following four elements was included in each of their descriptions of childhood experience in nature: (1) exploration and discovery, (2) an experience of beauty or peace, (3) experiences with family, and (4) playing with friends in nature. At times, their experience of beauty or peace in nature was paired with a sense of exploration and discovery; at other times, beauty or peace was a self-contained element of experience.
Nearly all participants indicated that their relationship with nature changed either in the college or adult years. All participants expressed at least one of the following about their experience with nature as adults: (1) they had less and too little time to enjoy nature, (2) the nature of their experience had changed due to their work in the environment, (3) nature served as a physical outlet, (4) nature served as a way to recharge mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, and (5) nature became a way to connect with their significant others or children. The participants also expressed a sense of loss or wistfulness about the changes in their experiences with nature from childhood to adulthood.
One important finding of this study is that the amount of time spent in nature, and the quality of that time in nature, changed throughout the participants' lives. The author calls for more research to better understand the changing relationship with nature over the lifespan. The author also suggests that it might be time to investigate the possible degree and meaning of "nature deficit disorder" in adults.