Imagine yourself surrounded by nature for a moment.

What do you see? A babbling brook, a soaring mountain top, or waves crashing against rocky beaches? Are you in a national park with picturesque views, or in a quiet forest, surrounded by trees and chipmunks?

I’m guessing you didn’t picture yourself in your backyard, looking at dandelions and listening to cars driving past.

A new study suggests that changing the way we think about nature might change our relationship with it – for the better. The study, titled Nature of Americans by Dr. Stephen Kellert and D.J. Case and Associates, aims to better understand Americans’ relationship with nature.

 

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Americans face a sizeable gap between their professed interest in nature and their actual outdoor activities, the study found. The researchers identified four major factors which feed this separation between nature and American adults and children:

  1. The areas where we live tend to separate us from the natural world.
  2. We spend our time, money, and attention on other top priorities.
  3. We directly depend on the natural world less for jobs and subsistence.
  4. We are distracted by technology. Children spend much more time in front of screens than outside.

Certain groups of people, including minorities, younger adults, and suburban and urban residents, face additional barriers when it comes to outdoor recreation. These groups noted a lack of financial resources, little social support, and discomfort in the outdoors as additional barriers.

The study, which was comprised of 12,000 children and adults from across the country, also pointed towards a particular area of concern for many older adults – the disconnect from nature for children and young adults.

While the “back in my day, we spent every minute outside from breakfast till the street lights came on” refrain might be a bit exaggerated, older generations are right to be worried about children’s outdoor experiences. Today’s children spend more time indoors than ever before. A poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy found that just 10 percent of children say they are spending time outdoors every day.

Despite the many factors driving the disconnect, the Nature of Americans study found reasons to be optimistic.

Adults and children think of nature differently, the researchers suggest. Adults tend to think of nature as an area that is untouched by human development. Expecting people to access remote, pristine swaths of natural beauty would be a daunting task for many, requiring time, money, and experience.

Children, however, find nature wherever they are outside. Picture your backyard, or local playground, again: ants crawl across benches, birds fly from tree to tree, flowers shoot up between sidewalk cracks. The place is teeming with life. Our children come into contact with this version of the natural world most often – something we should encourage, even if we don’t consider it true “nature.”

The researchers recommend creating experiences with nature closer to home to make it more accessible for people who might not spend a weekend backpacking in the Rockies. Whether it is climbing trees or visiting zoos and aquariums, finding ways to encourage children to interact with nature at a local level is an excellent start.

For urban and minority children, however, accessing nature even in local parks and playgrounds can be a challenge. Parents of minority children reported fewer parks in their neighborhoods than parents of white children, and for parents in urban areas, the safety of these parks was an additional concern.

Outdoor experiences are critically important to children. Virtually all eight to 12-year-old children in the study said that contact with nature made them happier and healthier. They even reported benefits to social relationships. Likewise, the adults in the study said that nature was important for both their physical and emotional health.

So what does this mean for parents?

While the authors of the report geared their recommendations primarily to program directors, there are some important takeaways for parents. Outside time is a key part of children’s development. While we know that children need to spend more time in nature, especially if we expect them to become lifelong stewards of an endangered planet, the prospect of taking a three-year-old camping in the backwoods may be daunting.

Children don’t require stunning vistas or expensive equipment in order to interact with nature. Observing a bug as it crawls along a sidewalk, or climbing a tree in a park, can be excellent ways for children to develop a relationship with the natural world. Changing how we think about nature can make it less intimidating, and therefore, more likely we will spend time in it.

Still not sure? Try looking at your neighborhood through the eyes of a child. Next time you go to your local playground, see if you can identify every bird you encounter. Once you spend a few minutes looking, you’ll start to see things you hadn’t noticed before. Nature is all around us – even sandwiched between the slide and the swings.

It’s this world, the one where people, plants, and animals live with each other, that we will have to learn to navigate. With climate change a growing concern for our children, showing them how to positively interact with their environment – not remain completely separate from it – is critical. Moving away from the belief that true nature must be untouched by human hands might actually help improve our relationship with it.