Blog by Dr Joelene Hughes, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

Connecting people to nature, is considered vital to grow support for nature and motivate conservation behaviour. A “connection to nature” is essentially an emotional relationship with nature and many organisations, including the RSPB, run activities to help people develop their connection.

However, currently there is not much known about what affects the strength of people’s connection. Better understanding about causes of variation in connection to nature could help conservation activities to be more effective. Recently, we published research with Rachel Bragg, Mike Rogerson and Jo Barton at the University of Essex, that revealed an interesting relationship between connection to nature and age, which has implications for conservation thinking and action.

Measuring people’s connection to nature

Connection to nature is complex – it is influenced by emotions, behaviour and knowledge. For example, the strength of somebody’s connection to nature can be affected by whether they find enjoyment in nature, whether they take action such as planting wildflowers or feeding birds, and their understanding about habitats and wildlife. As with any relationship, connection to nature can take a while to develop, and will be affected by the individual’s personality plus external influences such as families, friends and opportunity!

Several different short questionnaires have been developed to measure connection to nature. All of them tap into slightly different aspects of connection, for example experience or learning, the sense of enjoyment, identity, empathy or responsibility. We chose two – the Connection to Nature Index (the CNI by Cheng and Monroe 2012) and the short-form Nature Relatedness tool (the NR6 by Nisbet and Zelenski 2013) which ask people to rate several statements from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Each response gets scored and the person gets an overall connection to nature score.

What we found

We surveyed over 2300 people aged 7 to 79 years and modelled their CNI and NR6 scores in relation to age and gender As we had no preconceived ideas about what the relationship would be modelling was done using a GAM – a generalised additive model – that uses a smoothing function to capture the fluctuations in the relationship and reveal broad trends.

Figures 1 and 2 from our paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment show how connection to nature differs with age.

Both sets of data showed females with higher scores than males, and the same broad pattern by age. A sharp drop in levels of connection to nature occurs among teenagers to a low point among those around 15-16 years old. Connection to nature rises among older teenagers (more sharply using the NR6) and fluctuated among adults (from the early to mid 20’s).

What could this mean?

This is cross-sectional data rather than longitudinal – data collected from different people at each age rather than the same people in each year – so it can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, we could consider the pattern as a generational effect. People born in the 1950’s (the 60+ people at the time of data collection) may have had more access to nature in their childhood and were able to build a stronger connection to nature than those born later. The decline in connection to nature from 75 yr olds to 15-16 yr olds, could represent declining availability of nature in that time. However, we were unable to come up with a plausible explanation for the rise among younger teens after the 15-16 dip. The 15-16 year olds would have been born at the turn of the century but, in our memory, there hasn’t been a specific event that may have caused low connection among this group that improved afterwards.

The other interpretation is that the pattern represents changes in connection over the life course due to personal and social influences. Young teenager’s connection to nature may decline as they are in time of great change. As people change schools, make new friends, become more independent from family, cope with hormonal changes and build up to exams at 16 years, their interest in nature, as with many other out of school activities such as sports groups, may decline. After 16 years and into the early 20’s people leave home and gain greater independence: they may learn to drive, get a full time job, earn money, go to university, travel, meet new people with new hobbies. These life changes may enable them to rediscover nature-based activities they used to enjoy or discover new ones. Finally, as people move through their adulthood their increasing responsibilities towards families and jobs, may reduce the time and money available for nature experiences. Although it may not diminish as adults squeeze it in their lives, it may not have the opportunity to greatly increase.

It is likely that a combination of the generational and social interpretations are responsible and this leads to exciting new avenues of research which we will continue. For current conservation action it raises several questions: can a poorly connected child still be a well-connected adult after the teenage dip? should we focus on removing that teenage dip? or concentrate more on older teenagers as the levels of connection to nature they reach in their early 20’s may set the baseline for their adult lives?

The late teenage years could be a critical time for influencing connection to nature in adulthood. Photo: David McHugh (rspb-images.com)  

Reference:  Hughes, J., Rogerson, M., Barton, J. and Bragg, R. (2019) Age and connection to nature: when is engagement critical? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. doi.org/10.1002/fee.2035

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