By Dr. John Martin
Nature-deficit disorder has become a buzzword, driving concerns about adults and children’s well-being and our ability to understand and care for the natural world. Modern lifestyles appear to be full of indoor and digital distractions from the natural world: tv, social media, computer games, shopping malls, offices, and transportation (cars, buses, trams, trains, planes). While citizen science predominantly relies upon technology to participate, it often also asks us to focus on the natural world, including plants, animals, weather, air quality, and water quality to name but a few examples. Other citizen science projects focus on a range of topics, including human health, space, and mapping roads and facilities.
Given the wide concern about nature-deficit there has been surprisingly little research directly testing whether a disconnect exists – and if it does, how this might affect our environmental behaviours. Recent research, by one of the Learning By Doing team, sought to address this knowledge gap, with a focus on Australian children aged 8-14 years in urban areas of Sydney, Australia’s largest city. This research found that most younger children, especially girls, reported strong connections to nature. But by their teenage years, many children were less connected with nature. Understanding and reversing this trend is vital to addressing global environmental problems.
Over 1,000 students, attending 16 public schools across Sydney, Australia, answered the questionnaire in-class under the supervision of their teachers (thanks!). This research measured the students’ connections to nature, asking about their: enjoyment of nature; empathy for creatures; sense of oneness with nature; and sense of responsibility towards nature.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom about nature-deficit disorder, we found that one in two children aged 8 to 11 felt strongly connected to nature, despite living in the city. However, only one in five teenagers reported strong nature connections. Children in the younger age group were also more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours. For example, one in two were committed to saving water and energy, and two in three recycled each day.
The research found that girls generally formed closer emotional connections to nature than boys did – a difference especially apparent in the final stage of primary school. Importantly, girls differed from boys in their responses to questions about sensory stimulation – girls particularly liked to see wildflowers, hear nature sounds, and touch animals and plants. This finding echoes previous research which found motivation for sensory connection to nature was greater in women than men.
Overall, these findings suggest that parents, educators, and others seeking to “reconnect” youth with nature should focus on the transition between childhood and the teenage years.
As many of us know, especially teachers and parents, adolescence is a period of great change. Children move from primary to high school, often switching peer groups, and struggling with puberty. Teenagers gain greater independence and must adapt to a maturing brain. Arguably, relationships with nature easily fall by the wayside when teens prioritise other aspects of their busy lives. This ‘adolescent dip’ (compared to younger children) is being observed across different cultures and disciplines, including nature connection. Perhaps participating as a citizen scientist can help some individuals maintain their connection with nature.
Though cities often appear to be concrete jungles, they still contain urban wildlife, parks, and other green elements; these provide opportunities to connect to nature, including through citizen science projects. In our everyday lives – including all age groups – we can easily contribute to a range of citizen science projects. A highly accessible global project is iNaturalist; the aim of this project is to document when and where species occur – including finding species that are new to science; that is, species that have never been documented or identified. All you have to do is submit photos of the plants, fungi, and animals you observe, from your backyard or anywhere in the world.
The iNaturalist project and community of participants assist with identifying the species in the photo(s). By participating in the iNaturalist project, individuals, teachers, and community groups can survey the biodiversity in their local area, known as a BioBlitz. Engaging in this way often opens our eyes to the diversity of species sharing our backyards, schools, and suburbs. Conducting a BioBlitz has become a tool to engage people with the species in their local areas. This practice has expanded to include cities occasionally competing either nationally or globally; individuals and groups (including schools) are welcome to participate.
A different way to connect with the nature around you is to write a short story about it, contributing to the Urban Field Naturalist Project. Stories can be accompanied with photos, videos, or your artwork (drawing, painting, zene, etc.). An example is ‘Lockdown Backyard’ – …it made us notice so many more animals living in the gardens than we would have previously noticed. Looking up and around us really showed us how many different species of animals the gardens housed. Slowing down and observing can help you to connect with nature, reporting or writing about your observations can enhance your level of connection.
Lastly, there are a range of citizen science projects aiming to work with schools, including Birdlife Australis’s Birds in Schools project, The University of Sydney’s Breaking Good project; see the Australian Citizen Science Association website for more information.
This Blog was adapted from the article about this study in The Conversation.
You can read the original research mentioned above:
Keith RJ, Given LM, Martin JM, Hochuli DF (2021). Urban children’s connections to nature and environmental behaviors differ with age and gender. PLoS ONE 16(7): e0255421. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255421