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Nature as children's space: A systematic review

Summary


Children’s perceptions of nature are varied and their engagement with nature rich in opportunities for promoting their overall development and well-being

How do children make sense of, assign meaning to, experience, and perceive natural spaces? Researchers addressed this question through a systematic review of empirical studies conducted with children 3 to 18 years of age. In addition to a presentation of key findings, this review also provides a systematic account of how the research studies were conceptualized, the sampling strategy and participants, the research context, data collection methods, and theoretical grounding.

The 83 articles included in this systematic literature review were published from 2000 to 2016 and were broadly categorized into four types: empirical work with children, review articles, retrospective studies on formative nature experiences during childhood, and articles proposing a framework to more broadly understand children’s engagement with nature. Most articles were empirical studies employing both qualitative and quantitative methods. Ten were review articles focusing on various aspects of child-nature interaction; two were retrospective studies; and three offered a framework for understanding the connection between children engaging in nature and health outcomes and promoting a lifelong appreciation for nature. There was only one systematic review of the literature. This review — conducted by Gill and published in 2014 — focused exclusively on the benefits of children engaging in nature. The current review differs by focusing specifically on children as respondents and their perceptions of nature as a space.

The studies were synthesized in four thematic domains based on the focus of each study: (1) Children and outdoor activity spaces; (2) Environmental Education and promoting active care for nature; (3) Direct experiences in and effects of natural spaces and places; and (4) Children’s perceptions of natural spaces and places. Various studies identified binary opposites in children’s perceptions of nature, such as perceiving nature as a space of solitude and sanctuary, but also as a threatening place. A noticeable gap in the literature is empirical research focusing on children from diverse backgrounds, particularly children from low-income families and impoverished communities, as well as children from indigenous communities.

The findings of this review indicate that children’s perceptions of nature as a space and place are diverse, but that further research is needed to gain a better understanding of how children in differing circumstances and communities construct nature. Findings consistent throughout the studies provide strong evidence of nature offering opportunities and experiences for engagement that benefit children in multiple ways, such as promoting their overall development and well-being.

Citation

Adams, S., Savahl, S., (2017). Nature as children's space: A systematic review. The Journal of Environmental Education, 48(5), 291-321.

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