Research on connection with nature and coping with environmental change can benefit from integration

Chawla, L. (2020). Childhood nature connection and constructive hope: A review of research on connecting with nature and coping with environmental loss. People And Nature.

Two parallel streams of research address young people's feelings of connection with nature. One stream focuses on nature connection as a primarily positive experience; the other examines a painful side of connection with nature. The painful side considers children's fears and worries about environmental risks and losses. The two streams of research have developed independently of each other. This review examines both streams of research, considering both quantitative and qualitative studies as they relate to children and youth, and argues for the importance of integrating across these research areas.

Quantitative studies examining nature connection as a positive experience have used a variety of tools and strategies for measuring connection and have considered how the variables of age, gender, time in nature and family relationships relate to connection. One thread that runs across measures for all ages relates to enjoyment experienced while being in nature. Strategies used in qualitative studies of children's positive experiences in nature include observations of children during free play and exploration in nature and narratives and interviews focusing on how children express their feelings for nature. This review found considerable overlap in what the quantitative and qualitative research report as indicators and promoters of nature connection. Specific findings from this review include the following: (1) children's ways of relating to nature tends to change at the transition points from early childhood to middle childhood, and middle childhood to adolescence; (2) connecting with nature supports multiple areas of young people's health and well-being; (3) children expressing greater connection with nature are also more likely to report taking action to care for nature; (4) children's connection with nature increases with time spent in nature; (5) extended time in nature in childhood predicts active care for nature in adulthood; (6) young people with more access and experience in nature express higher levels of connection; (7) females tend to report higher levels of connection than males; and (8) parents and other family members can encourage or discourage connecting with nature.

Research on the painful side of connection with nature identified three ways in which children and youth cope with the fears and worries they have about environmental concerns: Emotion-focused coping which seeks to escape painful feelings; problem-focused coping which seeks to address the problems that cause these feeling; and meaning-focused coping which finds positive value in confronting the problems. Higher degrees of meaning-focused coping in children and youth are linked to more positive feelings and greater life satisfaction. Meaning-focused coping reflects “constructive hope," which includes the ability to face environmental risks and uncertainty, to believe one's own actions and the actions of others can make a difference, and to find positive meaning in action.

Programs designed to increase young people's connection with nature tend to be more effective with younger participants, extend over a period of several days, provide more free choice versus directed activities, and often involve nature conservation activities. Social trust and the capacity to find meaning in addressing challenge play important roles in helping young people cope with environmental concerns. Social trust involves feeling others' support and knowing that other people are also acting to protect the natural world.

This review suggests that connecting with nature and acting to protect nature can be mutually reinforcing. It concludes by highlighting the importance of integrating research on connection with nature and coping with environmental change.

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