Nature Time and Pro-environmental Attitudes/Behaviors: History
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Urbanization, screen dependency, and the changing nature of childhood and parenting have led to increased time indoors, creating physical and emotional distancing from nature and time spent in natural environments. Substantial evidence from observational and intervention studies indicates that overall time spent in nature leads to increased perceived value for connectedness to nature and, subsequently, greater pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors (PEAB).

  • nature
  • nature exposure
  • time in nature
  • nature affinity
  • environmental values
  • pro-environmentalism
  • environmental education
  • nature experience
  • environmental attitudes
  • environmental behaviors

1. Introduction

Research on the health benefits of contact with nature and research on environmental sustainability are rarely integrated. Individuals who spend more time in nature tend to be both healthier as well as more disposed toward acknowledging and addressing challenges to planetary health where nature can potentially offer solutions such as the slowing of the climate crisis. Thus, updates to the literature on nature exposure and environmental attitudes/environmental behaviors (EA/EB) should also incorporate environmental sustainability, including climate activity.

Broadly, environmental attitudes are an individual’s beliefs, affect, and behavioral intentions regarding nature and environmentally related activities or issues [1]. Environmental attitudes encompass aspects such as an individual’s environmental reasoning [2][3][4][5], ecological beliefs [6], connection to nature [7], place attachment [8], biophilia [9][10], and willingness to engage in pro-environmental behaviors [11][12][13]. Pro-environmental behavior is defined as environmentally responsible or environmentally protective behavior [14], such as biodiversity conservation [15] or adoption of recycling efforts [16]. Research demonstrates positive associations between environmental attitudes and behaviors [17], with pro-environmental attitudes generally mediating the relationship between nature exposure and pro-environmental behaviors [18][19][20].

Most observational research measures exposure to nature by time spent outdoors or in a natural environment. Nature contact may be intentional, incidental, or indirect, and this contact occurs within diverse cultural, geographic, and ecological contexts [21][22]. Although the benefits of spending time in nature, including urban nature, are well-documented, mounting evidence of population level declines in time in nature may be due to factors including increased urbanization, reliance on technology for work and entertainment, societal changes toward more structured childhood activities, and negative perceptions of nearby nature [23][15][24][25][26][27]. Therefore, interventions to raise awareness of and exposure to nature should be definitionally broad.

In contrast to these, this narrative review incorporates theoretical approaches to cultivating PEAB, paying specific attention to studies which respond to previously highlighted research needs to examine cultural and social variability in PEAB and inequities in nature access and experience which impact PEAB promotion. This narrative literature review briefly examines existing metrics of time spent in outdoor or natural environments during childhood within the fields of environmental health, education, and psychology and introduces definitions and metrics of environmental values, attitudes, and behaviors. We consider conceptual frameworks that connect nature exposure to PEAB. We evaluate evidence for how exposure to nature in childhood influences environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood across demographic and cultural contexts, outline research gaps and limitations, and propose future directions to address these gaps.

2. Analysis on Results

Defining and measuring environmental values has become a major focus of environmental and psychological research as researchers evaluate the origins and drivers of PEAB to design environmental education programs that will promote these attitudes and behaviors.

A large body of literature, primarily in the fields of environmental education, environmental psychology, and environmental tourism, examines formative experiences in nature and how these experiences shape an individual’s later attitudes towards the natural environment.

Environmental education research has focused on youth populations who are immersed in educational experiences for short periods of times (e.g., days or weeks), such as National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and environmental-focused summer camps. Researchers examining youth participation in nature-based summer camps versus urban camps found that nature-based camps increased children’s connection to nature (measured via the Emotional Affinity towards Nature scale [28]), pro-environmental attitudes (measured via the New Environmental Paradigm scale [29]), and willingness to display pro-environmental behaviors (pre- and post-test assessment of intention to visit nature and willingness to carry out daily conservation actions and environmental citizenship behaviors) [30]. Researchers have also considered the importance of depth of experience among student populations, comparing deep nature experiences, (e.g., immersive multiday backpacking trips) to more mild nature experiences (e.g., walking along a park trail) [31][32]. Deep nature experiences were associated with more positive attitudes towards nature, even after controlling for inclement weather and negative nature experiences (e.g., mosquito bites).

Barriers to positive nature experiences are not primarily weather-based, although certain types of weather (e.g., rain, cold temperatures) restrict people from spending time in nature [33]. In addition, research suggests that prior perceptions of weather and personal preferences play a role in nature experience [34]. For instance, people from colder climates are more likely to spend time in nature, regardless of degree of cold, whereas people from warmer climates are more likely to perceive cold temperature as a barrier to engaging in nature experiences. Furthermore, more time spent in nature is associated with increased self-worth and self-efficacy in the face of challenges [35]. Studies of environmental experience across different natural landscapes (i.e., varying vegetation types and densities) reveal that isolated and enclosed spaces appear to be less desirable than forested areas and open landscapes or viewsheds, suggesting that natural landscape type might moderate experiences in nature [36][37].

3. Current Insights

While the literature demonstrates associations between exposure to nature and PEAB, much is still unknown, such as how different nature qualities and interactions with nature differentially impact individuals’ PEAB [21][38], how to account for different types of nature exposure (e.g., green space, blue space, deserts) [39], and the mechanistic pathways for the associations of nature contact and PEAB.

Several limitations constrain the research of how nature experiences shape PEAB. A lack of longitudinal studies limits knowledge on how perceptions of nature change over time within individuals and how singular events (e.g., environmental tourism and short-term educational experiences in youth) may impact one’s long-term perception of nature. Many of the studies we examined are cross-sectional, making it difficult to determine whether positive associations between nature experiences and PEAB attenuate with time elapsed since the experience. Additional research examining mechanistic pathways activated by childhood nature exposure and outdoor play that may foster PEAB throughout the life course is needed.

It is critical to recognize that what qualifies as a significant nature experience can vary across individuals and populations, which may result in differing outcomes related to connection to nature in childhood. Furthermore, nature affinity in childhood may evolve over time as one’s experiences (e.g., frequency of experience, type of experience) in nature change [40]. Current findings from small-scale interventions evaluating nature exposure and changes in environmental attitudes and behaviors may not translate to larger system-wide studies to increase nature exposure across population groups.

Disentangling mechanistic pathways will be critical for designing and evaluating interventions that aim to promote PEAB, such as environmental education programming [41]. The field would benefit immensely from studies that assess PEAB beginning early in life and following participants throughout the life course to examine changes to individual set (e.g., cultural values) and setting (e.g., built and natural environments). Future mechanistic studies should include ecological momentary assessments, which involve the repeated sampling of participants’ current behaviors, emotions, and experiences in real time as participants move throughout natural environments [42], and the effect of in situ nature contact on pro-environmental inclinations. The theories presented in this section are anthropocentric, and the field would benefit immensely from future research using a relational theoretical approach, where humans are considered part of, rather than distinct from, ecology [43][44].

4. Conclusions

Substantial evidence from observational and interventional studies indicates that overall time spent in nature is associated with increased perceived value for and connection to nature and, subsequently, greater PEAB. The current evidence base is limited by several factors, including primarily cross-sectional studies, a lack of mechanistic research, and inconsistencies in the assessment of nature exposure and PEAB. We suggest several future research directions (enhancing study design, improving assessment of PEAB, and furthering mechanistic research), each of which underscores the importance of promoting time spent in nature and PEAB in the face of growing challenges to planetary health.

This entry is adapted from the peer-reviewed paper 10.3390/ijerph18147498


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