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Trees as affordances for connectedness to place -- A model to facilitate children's relationship with nature


Tree play can deepen connection to nature and afford opportunity for risky play

This study, while exploring urban children’s relationship with trees, unites the theoretical constructs of affordance and connectedness to place. Affordances are elements of a place that invite actions. Children in a previous study identified trees as a preferred element in a natural setting. This study, then, focused on trees as one particular affordance within a garden camp. The aim was to determine whether an appealing affordance, like trees, can help children connect with nature while fulfilling basic psychological needs.

This research was conducted in the Kumpula School Garden in Helsinki, Finland with children (age 7-12) attending a nine-week summer camp at the research site. The garden includes an apple orchard, a large forest with multiple tree species, and a playground. The study extended over a three-year period, with approximately 130 children participating each year. While some of the children participated over multiple years, most of the data for this study was based on observing children with no previous experience of this garden space.

The primary researcher spent three summers at the research site recording observations through field notes, photos, and recordings (audio and video). This data was then compared with other sources of data, including other camp leaders’ field notes, children’s drawings, poems and photos, as well as the children’s verbal descriptions about what they were doing and feeling as they were engaged with the garden affordances.

Children’s use of trees increased gradually and became more versatile as their connection with the place developed. Trees provided materials, play space and activities that responded to children’s personal and social needs. As children engaged with trees, they also learned to manage tree-related risks (such as falling). Some of the children’s favorite activities in and around trees included hut building, climbing, and, making or using tools.

From their observations and interpretations of how children used trees as affordances, the researchers developed a theoretical framework relating to how urban children’s connectedness to place evolved over time. This framework consists of three phases: outsider, explorer, and insider.” During the first days of camp, children – as outsiders in a new situation – spent their time exploring their immediate surroundings. During the second (searcher) phase, children’s priorities were more focused on getting to know the place and the people. Children during the last (insider) phase demonstrated more holistic and creative uses of affordances.

This study indicates that the level of insideness increases an individual’s connectedness to place as the amount of time spent in that place increases. This study also indicates that the quality of connectedness to place is affected by the specific affordances with which individuals can interact and connect. The versatility of the trees helped children become more connected with a place at the level of insiders who are totally immersed in nature. This final phase, the authors suggest, may help children become more connected to nature as a whole. This research supports increased opportunities for child-directed play time in natural places with trees which will invite children to use green spaces according to their needs.


Laaksoharju, T, Rappe, E., (2017). Trees as affordances for connectedness to place -- A model to facilitate children's relationship with nature. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 28, 150-159.


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