Engagement with nature offers multiple benefits to humans and is associated with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. Recent trends indicate that, for both children and adults, interactions with nature are decreasing. This study investigated factors contributing to these decreasing interactions over a period of 15 years (2000-2015). Three questions framed the study: “Is the connection with nature stronger in adults or children? Which group changed the most in their attitudes towards nature during the 15-year study period? And does residential environment affect the connection with nature experienced by children and adults?”
Data for this study included survey responses of approximately 3500 residents of Sendai City, Japan – a city with diverse landscapes, including coastal ecosystems, paddy fields, urban areas, rivers, and forests. In 2001, 2010, and 2015, the local government asked seventh-grade students (age 12-13) and their family members to complete a survey about their familiarity with local flora and fauna. The survey asked children and adults whether they had observed 12 local species groups within the previous year. In addition to the option of a “yes” or “no” response, another possible answer was “I don't know.” For each species group, if respondents indicated that they had not seen or heard of it in the last year, it was assumed that this was influenced by wildlife-related factors (such as population size and distribution) and/or people-related factors (such as time spent outdoors and opportunity to observe wildlife). If respondents indicated they didn't know, it was assumed that this reflected a lack of interest in or knowledge about the species. In the data analysis, “not knowing” was interpreted as an indication of “apathy.” Observation frequency and apathy were then used as indicators of respondent's level of engagement with wildlife and natural environments. Vegetation maps were used for calculating the residential environment of the participants, with calculations based on percentage of urbanized area.
Results indicated that adults observed wildlife more frequently than children and that this higher frequency was influenced by their childhood exposure to wildlife and nature interactions. Results also indicated decreasing trends for observing most species groups, especially among children. While the apathy level of children was much higher than that of adults for two species groups (the cuckoos and crickets), there was no great difference for other species groups. Additionally, there was almost no difference in apathy of children in 2001 and adults in 2015. This suggests that “knowledge about or interest in wildlife is acquired by the age of 12–13 and carries over to adulthood.” Overall results showed that residential environment did not explain the difference in interactions with nature between children and adults.
“This study revealed serious decreasing trends in both wildlife observation frequency and knowledge about or interest in wildlife, especially among children.” These findings highlight the importance of increased attention to maximizing children's opportunities for engagement with nature.