Spending time in nature has psychological, social, and pro-environmental benefits for children

Dopko, R. L., Capaldi, C. A., & Zelenski, J. M. (2019). The psychological and social benefits of a nature experience for children: A preliminary investigation. Journal Of Environmental Psychology, 63, 134-138. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2019.05.002

A growing body of research supports a positive association between nature engagement and children's well-being, pro-social behaviors, and pro-environmental attitudes. Methods used for this body of research, however, precludes the establishment of causality. This study adds to the current literature by using an experimental design to determine if experiences in nature have the potential to alter children's moods, attitudes about the environment, and pro-social behaviors.

Eighty children from an elementary school in Canada participated in at least one of two field trips: one to a Forest and Nature School; one to an Aviation and Space Museum. Activities at each site lasted approximately four hours. The main purpose of the Forest and Nature School experience was to immerse children in wild nature; the main activity was active exploration in the forest setting.  Activities at the museum focused on learning how airplanes fly and exploring aircraft. The children were asked to complete a short survey after each field trip. The survey assessed four areas of interest: mood, nature connectedness, willingness to protect nature, and pro-sociality.  Data analysis focused on differences between the measured outcomes of the nature school and the museum experience.

Results showed that children experienced more positive and negative emotions at the nature school. They also experienced a closer connection to nature and a greater willingness to protect the environment when at the nature school. Other results showed that children were more pro-social at the nature school. Results showing an association between nature and positive emotions are consistent with adult studies and non-experimental studies with children. Several explanations are offered regarding the unexpected association between the nature experience and negative emotions, including fear of nature, minimal prior experience in the wilderness, and unfavorable weather conditions.

The overall results of this study suggest that spending time in nature has psychological, social, and pro-environmental benefits for children. Although the positive benefits experienced by the children are likely temporary, “this study takes a preliminary step towards determining causal direction with more confidence.” Further research is needed to replicate these findings.

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