How does being in the great outdoors make you feel? Emily Bishton, of our Corporate Communications Team, speaks to the pioneering University of Derby research group members who have identified the emotional links and connections we make to our natural surroundings – even in the urban jungle.
We’re all familiar with that invigorating feeling when we manage to tear ourselves away from our smartphones to step out into the garden or take a walk in the sunny park.
Spending time in nature has long been heralded as a popular pastime to banish our urban-living blues but, in our increasingly hectic lives, is there a way to really connect with the natural world around us? And what kind of long-term benefits could this provide?
Discovering new benefits
For Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby, there are five different ways we can connect to the natural environment, known as the Five Pathways to Nature Connectedness.
Contact – the act of engaging with nature through the senses. Examples could include listening to birdsong, smelling wild flowers or watching the sunset.
Beauty – taking time to appreciate beauty in nature and trying to capture it through art or in words.
Meaning – taking time to consider the meaning of nature and what the signs of nature mean to you.
Emotion – finding happiness and wonder within nature or
making an emotional bond.
Compassion – thinking about what you can do for nature.
Miles leads the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group, the first of its kind to focus on this emerging topic.
He says: “Exposure to nature is widely accepted as beneficial, however research shows that developing a deeper connection with nature is more important for mental wellbeing. Nature connectedness also leads to proenvironmental behaviours, which is good for both individuals and the planet as a whole. This is a relatively new construct and we are still finding new and unexpected benefits (1).”
The National Trust has adopted these pathways and uses them to inform its programme of activities for its 25 million visitors each year. The Wildlife Trust has also embraced this work, tying it in to its 30 Days Wild programme. For three successive years, this approach has led participants to feel happier, healthier and has encouraged them to do more for nature conversation, even two months after taking part (2).
Dominic Higgins, Nature and Wellbeing Manager at the Wildlife Trust, says: “Everything we do and have depends on nature, and it should be everybody’s right to have access to wildlife-rich habitats every day.
“30 Days Wild shows that nature isn’t ‘over there’; it isn’t some far-off thing. It’s about people noticing the everyday nature that’s all around them. Urban areas are like green jungles; the trees are bursting with life but sometimes you just need to take a moment to notice it.”
2018 was a record-breaking year for the 30 Days Wild project, with a 40% increase in participants from the year before. The project ran in June, and it was estimated that if every person who signed up carried out ‘30 Random Acts of Wildness’ that month, then there would have been over 10 million special moments with nature.
Creating a connection
Developing small ways to connect with everyday nature has become increasingly important, as we don’t often live in areas with close proximity to green spaces. According to the United Nations, by 2050, 66% of the world’s population will live in urban areas (3).
Jenny Hallam, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, talks about how this can impact children’s connection with nature: “Access to green space has reduced significantly. In 1991, it was reported that there was a 90% decrease in areas around urban homes in which children could roam freely, and it is unlikely to have improved much since then (4).
“Even where there is accessible land for children, there are growing fears around child safety. Parents often don’t feel comfortable with their child engaging in those spaces unsupervised, due to who they might meet or what activities they might engage in, such as breaking bones climbing trees or falling into rivers or lakes. These concerns are very real and justified, but could be working to prevent children from engaging with nature.”
Feral Spaces (5) is a project led by Laurel Gallagher, who works with disadvantaged urban communities to reclaim disused public spaces for creativity, adventure and play.
Jenny worked with Laurel, looking into how children can connect with the ‘mundane’ nature around them and the benefits this can provide: “The children were taken to a largely disused, semi-wild space near their school and were asked to come up with a vision and how they could improve it for community use. They built dens and swings, which involved physical work like cutting down branches, clearing spaces and tying knots.
“Along with the physical skills they were practising, it also helped them develop risk management skills and confidence in interacting with the environment (6).
“Because the children had been working collaboratively, they were developing new social connections which carried over into the school environment. There was a real sense of pride in what they had achieved which, along with their new support network, really impacted their wellbeing.
“Traditionally, in nature connectedness research there is a focus on going out into the wild and connecting with ‘big’ nature. I think this potentially presents quite a narrow view, as nature is everywhere. Visiting national parks or areas of established natural beauty can be very resource intensive, in terms of time, money and transport. It can be inaccessible to a lot of people.
“Big nature, and the knowledge-based activities often encouraged in these areas, such as identifying trees or birdwatching, can sometimes feel quite alien to children. They may not be able to relate to it on an emotional level. The everyday mundane nature they see around them is freely available and offers the opportunity for connection for all children, regardless of their background.”
Miles agrees, noting: “The crises of climate change and biodiversity loss show that our traditional relationship with nature has failed and there is a need for a new relationship with the natural world. Nature connectedness, and the pathways to it, provide a basis for that new relationship.”
1 Lumber R, Richardson M, Sheffield D (2017) Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection. PLoS ONE 12(5):
2 Richardson, M., Cormack, A., McRobert, L. & Underhill, R. (2016). 30 Days Wild: Development and Evaluation of a Large-Scale Nature Engagement Campaign to Improve Well-Being. PLoS
ONE 11(2): e0149777. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0149777
Richardson, M., & McEwan, K. (2018). 30 Days Wild and the Relationships Between Engagement With Nature’s Beauty, Nature Connectedness and Well-Being. Frontiers in Psychology, 9.
Richardson, M., McEwan, K., & Garip, G. (2018). 30 Days Wild: who benefits most? Journal of Public Mental Health, 17(3), 95-104.
4 Gaster, S. (1991) ‘Urban Children’s Access to Their Neighbourhoods: Changes Over Three Generations’. cited in Louv, R. (2005) Last Child in the Woods, p.123. 13
6 Hallam, Howard, Gallagher (under review) An investigation into young people’s engagement with a semi-wild, disused space and their well-being. Environmental values