The Value of Nature Connection

In 1992, during the Rio Earth Summit, I was a 23 year old student at Manchester Polytechnic  in my final year studying Environmental Management, and co-running Friends of the Earth Rainforest Group.  We stood outside the DIY stores with our banners, letting people know about the destruction of the rainforests! It’s hard to imagine that this was 20 years ago.

Today it seems, we aren’t much wiser in our behaviour and understanding of the importance of nature – why is this?

Since that time, the question “what motivates people to care about the natural world” has been a theme to my life and my work.  How we are brought up, and the impact of culture and education ostensibly affects the way we think and act.  So what are the cultural messages?  What are possible solutions?

We could start by looking at what our culture, education, government policy and worldviews are directly or indirectly valuing.  How do we “do things round here?”  Are we brought up to value nature and our place in nature?  Do our systems reflect at its core, the importance of healthy ecosystems?   Do we learn to give back as well as take?  Does nature have rights or is it just human rights? Does our capitalist economy reflect our reliance on natural capital?  The bigger questions do need addressing, as the answers form the basket in which we the people are contained within.  What would our society look like if we had nature at the forefront of our decisions?

In keeping the focus of this discussion nature-based youth-orientated , I believe the most effective solution to motivating people to care about nature is to give as many people as much opportunity as possible to experience the natural world directly. In David Attenborough’s words, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”.   Where are most of the young people? In schools! The fastest way to affect change would be to address the curriculum, and the training of teachers.    A huge campaign supported by celebrities as role models who care about nature would likely have  a big affect too – use some of the marketing savy for a good purpose!

Before we do anything, we need to unpack what we really mean by connecting Britain’s children to the Natural World.  In my view, connecting  has a strong experiential feel to it.  It is not generally what educationalists talk about when they discuss ‘Education for Sustainable Development’ in the curriculum.  I am fortunate to have a Masters in Environmental Education, where we spent several years unpacking what Education for Sustainable Development means, as well as several other titles. They are similar but do lead to different outcomes.  Whatever we do, we need to consider carefully what outcomes we are hoping to reach and then decide the method!  Having been a teacher, researcher and environmentalist for 20 + years, I know that what we have been delivering in schools at primary and secondary level has not led to children feeling connected to the natural world.

Paradoxically (from  your report), it is true that there has been a ‘huge rise in awareness of environmental issues which has coincided with a decrease in people’s specific knowledge of the wildlife they wish to save’.  We know more about the big issues and can’t identify the plant or bird outside our front door.   We are constantly  given mixed messages, on the one hand climate change is an issue, on the other buy more products behaviours that  indirectly or directly  lead to climate change.

Connection is different to knowledge.  Connection does not imply knowledge, though that is a bi-product.   Connection is emotive,  it’s a feeling that builds relationship. It doesn’t mean that we know the name of a plant or animal, but it offers a real life meeting with another living being.  It requires us to use of all of our senses – our sense of smell, touch, hearing, taste, vision, direction, all the senses that tell us we are alive, it’s experiential and can’t be learnt in books.   Reading about a person is very different from meeting them.  Talking about sex is very different from having sex – to make a point.  Connecting to nature, creates curiosity and interest, that makes you feel alive.  Knowledge has more of a quality of filing it, not feeling it.

Since 2004 I have taken young people into the woodlands for days,  programmes and camps –  it doesn’t take long for the participants to open up their awareness and start to perceive the world at large in a different way.  They start to relax.  They play and make things using natural materials, reporting  an improvement in how they feel.  They discover, “ You don’t need a T.V if you have a fire ”(teenage participant). We all know that most of us spend many an hour in front of a screen that focuses our vision in one particular way.    What we rediscover outdoors is our human ability to use peripheral vision, where we can walk and be aware of both what is in front of us and what is all around us at the same time.  Suddenly the forest seems quite different.  Our breathing slows down, we notice the level of noise our feet are making, and the sounds of the bird above us and surrounding us.  Our level of perception and awareness increases.  The outdoors becomes alive.  We not driving through it anymore, we are with it, exploring, feeling with a heightened sense of awareness.  It’s not just about us. We know we are part of something greater.   We appreciate where things come from, how warmth and food comes from fire, and feel  a sense of community.  It’s not just about humans.  We start thinking outside of our box.  We could say our  self-absorption has become dysfunctional.

For the last 3 years we have been funded by Natural England and MIND to work specifically with disadvantaged groups – my key understanding working directly with young people in woodlands who have been discriminated because of their ethnicity or mental health is that through connecting with nature, we  find a place that we all belong.   We work from an underlying principle that within a healthy ecosystem, there is no hierarchy, rather, an understanding that we all have a vital place, and that diversity brings strength, resilience and health.  As a facilitator, I am aware of the authority I have, and I am careful how I use this ‘power’.  Particularly with challenging groups, it is essential to use my ‘power’ wisely, to empower others, and go beyond a surface understanding of what respect really means.

There is a largely hidden agenda that values one above another, and our systems reinforce this.  From a young person’s point of you – they feel stigmatised at school for being different, and don’t generally feel that the management is setting a clear and supportive agenda.  And they feel stigmatised by society for being who they are.  Part of creating a new way of thinking, means addressing our prejudice at a personal level, and working with nature-centric  models that welcome the younger and older generations, rich, poor, different ethnicities, trees, plants, and has nature at its core.  Ultimately we are completely reliant on a healthy natural ecosystem for our health – so creating regenerative systems that support healthy natural systems is the only way our great grandchildren will inherit  a healthy planet.

Connection to nature also means connecting to our nature, our inner nature, our inner ecology, and have passed through stages in life,  being able to be authentic.  We are ‘natural’ beings.  Discovering our ‘nature’ is also an outcome of connecting with nature.  When young people find a welcoming space outdoors they find it much easier to share what is going for them, which  can be very therapeutic if held by experienced facilitators.

The key is to find opportunities to be outdoors – and a young person’s experience and level of connection can vary depending on the container – be it the natural container of a woodland or the facilitator. The quality of connection to nature is affected by this.  Hence without a doubt, if you want young British people to connect with nature, you do need both good facilitators and access to nature.  This doesn’t mean that getting outdoors as a family or individual wouldn’t have a positive affect.   Rather, we have lost a culture that supports an intrinsic understanding of nature and our  natural self and ways of engaging with young people that promote an inquiring and exploratory mind. We have forgotten how to play outdoors, instead scold our children for being ‘dirty’.

We can and do run ‘Forest School’ in schools with play grounds – and we have documented positive outcomes (please contact for our research findings), however if you  take a group into the woods or wild place, something more happens.  A deeper immersion is possible, exploration using all of their senses increases well-being and domesticated life meets the  non-domesticated.    A caution: you may think you are offering nature connection, and actually be offering a type of environmental education that is more interested in knowledge than connection – current research is showing that when you give a young person the answer, you immediately shut down their curiosity to know more.  There is an Art of Questioning. If you name a tree or bird, the young person loses interest in its colours, shape, size, the smell and in fact ends up knowing very little  other than the name.  In contrast, if you use questions, e.g does it have more than one colour?  Why does it grow there?  You begin to open them up and create a stronger connection.

So what do we mean by nature connection? And is this the same as getting outdoors?

A key factor is our conduct.   Is nature connection about what we can get from the outdoors/nature or is it more about building a growing relationship.  Isn’t  ‘what we can get’ the same mind set that has created such a disconnection or disorder? My view is that building a relationship is what is necessary in order to create a long-lasting care for nature.  I am aware that many people may think that by virtue of doing something outdoors, they will increase nature connection.  There is a growing business in outdoor activities and festivals and an increasing drive to get people outdoors.  Does taking how we are indoors, to the outdoors, mean that we  build an appreciation and care for nature?  I don’t think so.  We don’t need another generation that uses nature but is completely unaware of the costs of our behaviour.

Over a long period of time, with good teaching and mentors, I have come to realise a fundamental fact.  We as humans have blind spots – blind spots that exist because we can only experience what our brains have been trained to see, smell, hear etc.  In practice this means that even if we walk past  a big old tree every day, should it be cut down, many of us would have a feeling something was missing but not be able to say what was different.  We are blinded because we have no connection. Without a repeated experience of nature, we are no longer aware of it. When we go to the great outdoors (little or great), let’s consider that we are entering a place that is filled with many lives – we must find a way to be outdoors that doesn’t leave any space for other living beings.    Is the nature connection we want our young people to have just getting outside or do we want them to notice what is there and develop an awareness of the diversity or life that surrounds them.

When I was campaigning about the destruction of the rainforest, I felt angry that the adults didn’t get it – ancient woodlands destroyed for cattle farms or furniture.  It’s still happening and our forests both far and near are diminishing.  We have enough research to know what we are doing, we don’t need more research, we need more people who care and are willing to curb what they are doing so that collectively we make a difference.   Young people know the importance of nature.  Research carried out for The Co-operative’s Green Schools Revolution programme, by Opinion Matters inteviewed 1027 young people said that the third most important subject to learn about at school is green issues and helping to save the planet.

We need clear direction from our leaders.  There has been a long term argument about should be use the carrot method or stick method to encourage positive behaviours.  My view is that if you value nature, and it’s at the core of your systems and policy, then you would use the stick method!!  You can always introduce a few carrots, but fundamentally our leaders need to speak up for nature – just like we are trying to do for children’s rights  –it’s time to give nature a voice and enforce this.  I used to think that telling people what to do was dogmatic, now I think not doing anything is colluding with a set of values that promote a disconnection from nature, and a deep cultural dysfunction.

A simple example of leadership could be remove plastic bags from supermarkets, or require the attainment targets in school to include nature experience.   For us privileged individuals, who have access to nature, we perhaps don’t know how fortunate we are – I meet young people who don’t know where eggs come from.  The great outdoors, offers us so much – but with that privilege comes responsibility.

Fundamentally we need to put nature first.   This is a what being sustainable requires.   There are many people and organisations worldwide that if we came together the numbers would be large – and  young people  expect adults to take a lead in this area.

In the short term funding projects that work directly with young people and families to provide high quality outdoor experiences is a clear way forward.   Teacher training to include learning outdoors and providing teachers with experiences and  materials to build connection would affect large numbers.  The large national charities   like the National Trust, RSPB, RSPCA, Woodland Trust, Wildlife Trusts could work collaboratively to give a collective voice for nature and campaign with a clear message.