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Why getting children to ‘engage with nature’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

English children are apparently “not engaging with nature”, according to a major two-year study. We’ve previously heard that they don’t know a calf is a baby cow, and that names of trees and flowers have gone from junior dictionaries to make way for words like “broadband” or “analogue”.

Fears about the lack of time spent outdoors have prompted high-profile campaigns to encourage a “free-range, nature rich, outdoor childhood”. Now I spent a huge proportion of my youth doing exactly the kind of tree-climbing and roaming this movement advocates. I’ve worked for conservation organisations involved in these campaigns, and I’ve researched how people benefit from gardens. So why do pleas to get children back into nature leave me a little uneasy?

The research featured in the latest news reports was led by Natural England, a government advisory body. The headlines are that 88% of English children have visited the natural environment in the last year, and that 70% go at least once a week. The media of course focused on the negative side of these figures – the 12% not visiting the natural environment. We might accept that, as this is the first reporting of this survey, we don’t know what the trend is across recent years, because there are two bigger questions to consider.

What is nature?

The first is with the very idea of engaging with the “natural environment”. In 1976 the Welsh author and academic Raymond Williams suggested that nature may be the most complex word in the English language. Some ecologists deny humans can ever be disengaged from it as we are part of it. Human geographers have long argued that cities are natural phenomena, made through the combined effort of humans and ecological processes. This might seem semantic, but there are practical implications to the difficulty of agreeing what nature is and where you can find it.

Getting back to nature? Juriah Mosin/Shutterstock

Natural England’s survey counts a range of places including urban parks, mountain or moorland, children’s playgrounds and allotments, although not – perhaps perversely given evidence of how they benefit people and wildlife – private back gardens. Regarding all these places as “natural” emphasises their similarity. But they’re hugely varied and engaged with in different ways so can have distinct benefits. What a child does in a small city playground is likely very different from how he or she experiences the open landscape of a national park.

Rather than thinking of all places with a good amount of greenery as natural and therefore beneficial, we need to distinguish which features and characteristics can have positive affects. By understanding this it becomes possible to plan environments which support positive, healthy engagement.

It’s not where you are, it’s what you do

The second issue is the risk of conflating place and activity. My research on community gardeners, for instance, showed that what one does when outdoors is as significant in terms of well-being as the very fact of getting out and among the plants.

To know what activities to encourage, we need to be more specific about what we actually want to achieve. If increased physical activity is a priority then time spent cycling to school or playing in a safe street may be better than a trip to see the countryside largely from the back of a car – and more readily accessible.

The other reason for a more detailed picture of children’s outdoor activities is to avoid the risk of presenting a homogenising picture which holds up a certain type of engagement with nature as the ideal. Think of hikers in cagoules forging on through all weathers, or peering through binoculars at a barely visible bird. But these pursuits are off-putting for many, and can squeeze out other outdoor activities which might have broad appeal.

An Englishman builds character. simonsimages, CC BY

The notion of the “great outdoors”, invigorating countryside and bracing fresh air is also highly culturally specific, closely tied to a “white British” identity. These associations can lead non-white ethnic groups to feel excluded from the countryside, and visit less often. The Natural England survey found that children from black and minority ethnic households are less likely than those from white families to regularly visit natural environments. It is not clear how much this is associated with income or living in cities. But the survey shows that even visits to urban greenspaces vary with ethnicity, suggesting it’s not just down to location.

For some people the outdoors simply doesn’t seem that great. Natural England and others have been working to address this by deliberately engaging with minorities to understand why they may be unlikely to visit natural environments. Research available so far suggests that different cultural groups have varied motivations for spending leisure time outdoors, with people of Asian heritage more likely to seek a sociable experience of eating and gathering, for example. So there is more to learn here.

Williams concluded that the word nature has powerful effects on any argument, so we should be “especially aware of its difficulty”. With this in mind I suggest we are wary of all the good that can be masked when we talk about “engaging with nature”. Children can enjoy the outdoors in many different ways and this can start right on their doorstep.

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