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Mechanisms of children's exposure to nature: Predicting adulthood environmental citizenship and commitment to nature-based activities

Summary


Children’s self-exposure to nature is a strong predictor of adulthood environmental citizenship and a lifelong commitment to nature-based activities

The understanding that childhood-nature experiences promote lifelong interest in nature and a commitment to environmental stewardship is well established. The aim of this study was to add to what is already known by investigating whether and to what extent different mechanisms through which children experience nature are associated with environmental citizenship and commitment to nature-based activities.

An online questionnaire was used to collect data for this study. One section of the questionnaire – referred to as “a Scale to Measure Exposure Mechanism” – was developed by the researchers after interviewing 13 adult park visitors about their childhood experiences with nature. Interview responses yielded ten pathways of childhood exposure to nature: (a) by themselves, (b) with immediate family, (c) with extended family, (d) with friends and neighbors, (e) through school programs, (f) through after-school programs, (g) through church programs, (h) through Scout programs, (i) through summer camps, and (j) through other. These pathways were listed as items on the questionnaire. Other sections of the questionnaire focused on adulthood environmental citizenship and commitment to nature-based activities and demographic variables. This questionnaire was sent to the email addresses of 509 employees of the United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. A total of 236 completed questionnaires were returned for a response rate of 46.6%.

Exposure mechanisms (i.e., type of childhood-nature experiences) were analyzed in relation to (1) predictors of environmental citizenship, (2) predictors of attitudinal commitment to nature-based activities, and (3) predictors of behavioral commitment to nature-based activities. In each area, the type of exposure mechanism mattered. For environmental citizenship, exposure through school-related programs was the only significant predictor of environmental advocacy, activism, and volunteerism; while self-exposure to nature was the only significant predictor of environmental literacy and political-ecological citizenship. For attitudinal commitment to nature-based activities, the only significant predictor was exposure to nature on one’s own and with friends. For behavioral commitment to nature-based activities, significant predictors included childhood exposure to nature through immediate and extended family, and on one’s own and with friends.

The overall findings of this study indicate that the various exposure mechanisms combined explain considerable variance in adulthood environmental citizenship and commitment to nature-based activities. Some exposure mechanisms seem to be more or less effective and efficient in attaining desired long-term outcomes. For example, the fact that childhood exposure to nature on one’s own and with friends predicts both adulthood environmental citizenship and commitment to nature-based activities suggests that less structure and freer play may be more effective in achieving desired outcomes than adult-structured or adult-facilitated nature activities.

The researchers conclude from these findings that multiple exposure pathways are needed for achieving the multitude of benefits of childhood exposure to nature. They discuss implications for pathways to enhance the benefits of childhood-nature experiences and offer suggestions for further research.

Citation

Asah, S.T., Bengston, D.N., Westphal, L.M., Gowan, C.H., (2018). Mechanisms of children's exposure to nature: Predicting adulthood environmental citizenship and commitment to nature-based activities. Environment and Behavior, 50(7), 807-836.

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