More Time Spent Engaged in Nature Play During Early Childhood May Lead to Life-Long Pro-Environmental Orientation and Behavior

March 17th, 2017

Frequent and positive contact with nature before age 11, especially in active and playful experiences, is likely to foster pro-environmental affect, attitude, values, and behavior in adulthood. Direct contact with nature creates strong connections and affiliations between child and place, which is important for eco-centric value development and fosters self-efficacy in environmental issues  

Findings from Research & Evaluation

Studies show that young children naturally have high levels of positive affect toward the environment,  high levels of empathy, and high levels of attachment to the environment. (Erdogan, 2011) Is this due to some evolutionarily-coded “biophilia”, an innate need to explore, learn, play, relax, and grow in wild areas, a drive towards spending time outdoors that preconditions children for environmental stewardship? How do these tendencies change or diminish depending on the experiences of a child and how can society foster or protect these natural tendencies in order to cultivate children that value the environment and act accordingly throughout their lives? The factors that determine environmental orientation, affect, and behavior in adulthood are interconnected and numerous. Along with frequencies and types of exposure to nature, the social, cultural, and societal aspects of a child’s life all contribute to the development of environmental values, beliefs, affects, and behaviors.

Nature play for young learners is about discovery, relying on natural curiosity and wonder to organically set the groundwork for appreciation of nature, examination of issues, and willingness to take action through pro-environmental or conservation-related behaviors (CRBs) when they are older. (Ernst, 2012) Research has found that positive and frequent exposure to nature from a young age has strong influences on life-long environmental knowledge, affect, and behavior and are factors that affect the environmental career choices, environmental awareness, and environmental concern among adults—regardless of background or SES. The more experience children have with nature, the more likely they are to be willing and able to express the need to protect it.  (Chawla, 2015, Strife and Downey, 2009) Especially of note for fostering pro-environmental affect and behavior in children is contact with nature through engaging, active, playful, and unmediated experiences before age 11. Wells and Lekies (2006) say these kinds of experiences are a “particularly potent pathway towards shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviours in adulthood”. There is substantial evidence that building personal connections to nature in childhood through direct experiences such as playing, foraging, birding, and walking in natural spaces can results in adults that hold broader sets of concerns for environmental issues, view the environment as an important part of who they are, and engage more often in CRBs. (Brand, et al., 2014, Cheng & Monroe, 2012, Ewert, Place, & Sibthorp, 2005, Kellert, 2005, Lester & Maudsley, 2007, Vadala, Bixler, & James, 2007, Wells & Lekies, 2006, Wight, et al., 2015)

In contrast with positive and frequent nature exposure, it has also been shown that onetime experiences are not as influential as daily exposure. In fact, infrequent exposure can lead to development of fear and discomfort with nature, further isolating youth and negatively influencing their ideas about environmental protection. (Strife and Downey, 2009) However, less-than-positive experiences are not always found to be a hindrance to pro-environmental affect and CRB engagement. Negative memories, such as seeing a favorite natural area lost to development, were also found to be a motivating factor for pro-environmental affect and behavior in adulthood. (Ewert, Place, & Sibthorp, 2005, Vadala, Bixler, & James, 2007)

Self-efficacy, or the perceived ability and self-confidence to enact change, was an important finding in Cheng and Monroe’s 2012 research of children’s connections to nature and willingness to engage in CRBs. Within their connection to nature, empowering children with knowledge and skills to help the environment on a developmentally appropriate level was found to be a vital predictor of children’s interest in CRB engagement. The researchers suggest hands-on and direct experiences to enhance pro-environmental affect and potential pro-environmental behavior. (Cheng & Monroe, 2012)


Brand, J. C., Radel, C., Brain, R., & Greene, J. (2014). Developing, implementing, and evaluating a No Child-Left-Inside pilot program. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 13(4), 261–268 Brand et al. No Child Left Inside pilot program

Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of Nature Contact for Children. Journal of Planning Literature, 30(4), 433-452. Chawla- Benefits of Nature Contact for Children

Cheng, J., & Monroe, M. C. (2012). Connection to Nature: Children’s Affective Attitude toward Nature. Environment and Behavior, 44, 31–49. Cheng & Monroe Connection to Nature

Erdogan, M. (2011). The effects of ecology-based summer nature education program on primary school students’ environmental knowledge, environmental affect and responsible environmental behavior. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 11, 2233–2237. Edrogan 2011

Ewert, A., Place, G., & Sibthorp, J. (2005). Early-life outdoor experiences and an individual’s environmental attitudes. Leisure Science, 27, 225-239.  Ewert, Place, Sibthorp 2005