Pathways to a closer connection with nature

The University of Derby’s research into nature connectedness has been named by Universities UK as one of the UK’s 100 best breakthroughs, for its significant impact on people’s everyday lives. In this blog, Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University, tells the story of the research team’s pathways to nature connectedness. 

At a time of crises in mental health and the state of the natural world, nature connectedness matters as it brings about improved wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. It is a measurable psychological construct that reflects a person’s relationship with the natural world.

Our Nature Connectedness Research Group identified five types of activities associated with improved nature connectedness. These five pathways, published in the journal Plos One in May 2017, were developed through three years of research and include activities in nature that involve:

  • Senses
  • Emotion
  • Beauty
  • Meaning
  • Compassion

The national impact of the pathways

The first application of the pathways came while we were still conducting the research. We were talking to The Wildlife Trusts about their new 30 Days Wild campaign, and applied the pathways to review their long list of activities, or random acts of wildness. We highlighted the knowledge-based activities, suggesting occasions when they could be framed differently, by noticing the beauty of the natural world, for example. Taking part in 30 Days Wild has repeatedly been found to increase nature connectedness, wellbeing and conservation behaviours for the 100,000+ people taking part.

A year or so ago, the National Trust adopted the pathways as a framework they could apply to designing visitor experience activities and programmes, fostering a closer relationship that benefited both humans and the natural world. In a fascinating year, I’ve been working closely with the Trust to help roll the pathways out across the organisation. I’ve also introduced the pathways to other conservation organisations, including the RSPB, Plantlife, Bumblee Conservation Trust, Buglife and Butterfly Conservation, to help inform their engagement work.

The first step in our work with the National Trust was an internal report introducing the evidence for the benefits of a connection with the natural world and the pathways. A series of workshops with the people who develop and manage the visitor experience then took place, facilitated by videos and guidance.

It’s been fascinating introducing the pathways and discussing them with a new audience, one with expertise in engaging people with the world around them. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive as to how the pathways can help tweak existing activities or inspire new ideas.

How to use the nature connectedness pathways

Senses – prompt moments to pause and notice what’s around them. It’s the simple things, like listening to birdsong and smelling wild flowers, touching bark, smelling pine needles or listening to the wind through the leaves. It’s possible to prompt engagement through art installations, creating ‘habitats for connection’.

Emotion – fostering an emotional bond with, and love for, nature. There are many creative ways to achieve this, which can include talking about and reflecting on your feelings about nature; helping people find wonder in it, and the joy and calm it can bring. Key to this is simply highlighting the pleasure people find, rather than the setting out facts and figures. Further guidance comes from our work into what people consider the ‘good things in nature’ – the sensations, changing seasons, weather, active wildlife, colours and beauty.

Beauty – activities that engage people with the aesthetic qualities of the natural world. This could include appreciating natural scenery, noting the beauty of a beetle before labelling it, or trying to capture nature’s beauty through art or words. Research shows that the wellbeing benefits of nature connectedness are significant for those people attuned and engaged with nature’s beauty.

Meaning – our minds continually extract meaning, and nature inspires the greatest poetry and art, from Keats’ Ode to the Nightingale to Wordsworth’s Daffodils. Meaning can include the properties of a place, or natural symbolism to represent an idea and the signs of nature. Meaning can pull together the other pathways; birdsong is what emotions sound like. Prompting people to consider what nature means to them. What’s their favourite local tree, and why?

Compassion – when connected to nature, our sense of self can be extended to include it. This leads to a moral and ethical concern for nature, as harming it is harming ourselves. Compassion can range from making ethical product choices to being directly concerned with animal welfare. Prompt people to consider what they could do for nature. Why not make a home for it?

An emotional, not factual, relationship with nature

Missing from the pathways is one of the main relationships people try to foster with nature: that of facts, figures, identification and knowledge. This can be difficult for some to accept – not being able to identify birds and trees makes national headlines. Taking the focus away from knowledge and identification, although challenging for some, has been embraced by those designing nature engagement activities as giving people a ‘licence to talk about emotions’.

After all, what types of lasting relationships are based on facts and figures? It should come as no surprise that a closer, healthier and more sustainable relationship with nature comes through noticing, emotion, compassion, and finding beauty and meaning.

So rather than describing what a blackbird looks like, find the joy in listening to its song. Rather than explaining how to identify a tree by its leaves, watch how the breeze moves them. Rather than recording and ticking off species, watch them going about their lives. Rather than conquering the outdoors, find awe and wonder in being there. Make contact, reflect, and experience emotion, meaning and the beauty of the natural world. Pause to find joy in your perception of the world.

Our work with the National Trust is being applied to a 2019 refresh of their ‘50 Things’ campaign, applying the pathways has seen the ‘climb a tree’ message evolve into ‘get to know a tree’ – children can still climb it, but a broader range of activities will be given in order to foster a more meaningful relationship with nature.

We should never forget that nature is AMAZING. We have to remind ourselves at every opportunity what is wonderful, meaningful and beautiful about the natural world, and what we can do to support it for our, and nature’s, wellbeing.

Find out more about the University’s Nature Connectedness Research Group.

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 591891, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

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