Recognizing connection to nature: Perspectives from the field
Advancing the field of connectedness to nature requires collaboration and resource sharing of coherent, replicable, and context-sensitive measurement tools
The term “connection to nature” is appearing with increasing frequency in the environmental education and environmental psychology literature. Tools for measuring this connection, however, reflect different conceptualizations of what the term means. Some measures focus on affective dimensions; some on cognitive dimensions; and others on multidimensional components (affective, cognitive, and experiential).
This study investigated how practitioners (versus academics) define and measure connection to nature. Researchers used a two-stage process for selecting study participants. Individuals contacted during the first stage worked for organizations that were (a) registered with the Children and Nature Network and (b) identified connection to nature as a goal, objective and/or desired outcome. Additional recruits were based on suggestions from individuals contacted during the first phase of the selection process. Seventeen environmental education professionals from 14 different non-profit organizations with specific programs to connect children to the natural world were selected to participate in this study. Organizations represented by the 17 participants were located across six different states, served a wide range of communities, and were funded through a variety of sources. Some of the organizations worked primarily with school groups during the school year; others operated primarily as an afterschool program or summer camp. Participants’ roles in their organizations included such positions as environmental educator, naturalist, education director, program director, director of program impact, and special project coordinator.
The 17 practitioners participated in individual semi-structured interviews, one hour in length. The interviews consisted of two phases: one focusing on organizational background related to connection to nature outcome assessment; the other focusing on practitioners’ knowledge and opinions relating to indicators of connection to nature, barriers to measuring connection to nature, and opinions about how to advance the field of connection to nature.
Some of the practitioners described an emotional connection to nature as a critical feature of connectedness; others focused more on knowledge or cognitive connections. Almost all identified the development of a conservation ethic as the most important indication of connection to nature. They also noted how funders and school partners tended to place more importance on outcomes relating to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) than to connection to nature outcomes. Several practitioners identified the lack of consistent agreed upon language for nature connection as a barrier to measurement for organizations seeking to connect children to the natural world. The majority of organizations reported not using one of the established connection to nature measures developed by academic researchers. Another barrier in measuring connectedness to nature outcomes was the practice of some organizations delivering programs that were not in participant’s local community. This difficulty relates to the idea of place attachment and sense of place — which according to some researchers — play an important role in connectedness to nature. More than half of the practitioners indicated that the best way to advance the field of connectedness to nature in the area of evaluation required collaboration and resource sharing of measurement tools to be used in the field.
Perrin, J.L., (2018). Recognizing connection to nature: Perspectives from the field. Environmental Education & Communication, 17(1),