Study finds a sense of belonging in the natural world is key to sustaining nature’s mental health benefits.
For my birthday this year, I went on a solo 2-day camping trip on the Appalachian Trail.
While this may sound scary (and there were times when it was), the main takeaway from the solo trip was how incredible of a teacher and a healer Mother Nature is – and how comfortable I felt learning from her.
This was extremely apparent as I built my first ever campfire alone. There was no one there giving advice as I tried to strike a flame with my $10 flint starter kit from Amazon or gather wood that was wet from snow. No one said, “You should do it this way.” I simply hit the flint over and over and over, making adjustments each time I saw the need for one, and hoped a spark would land on that tiny piece of cotton. I simply kept adding pieces of wet wood little by little. My mantra was, “Just keep trying, you’ll figure it out eventually.”
And I did. That fire burned for over 6 hours. My birthday trip taught me this: I feel able to learn when I’m in nature because I feel safe and connected to nature.
Belonging in nature & mental wellbeing
We know through the research that a sense of belonging is a fundamental need for learning. Feeling like we fit in improves our motivation levels, psychosocial function, and positive associations with the learning process.
We’ve also learned how important nature is to our mental wellbeing and emotional states – especially for young people who are in the formative years of building their mental health structures. One study in Canada asked 30,000 young people questions about stress and irritability and about their feelings toward the natural world. Those adolescents who reported having an important relationship with nature were 25% less stressed than their peers who had little to no interest in nature.
But then, during COVID, we discovered another little piece to the puzzle. A study published in the Sustainability journal compared 624 young people’s mental wellbeing, connection to nature, and participation in outdoor activities before the pandemic and during the pandemic. The study’s researchers wanted to understand how these three factors were interconnected.
After analyzing the data – which included the discovery that, during the pandemic, over half of the young people had cut down on outdoor activity, experienced diminished mental wellbeing, and reported feeling a loss of connection to nature – the researchers drew this conclusion: the strength of a sense of connection to nature is directly correlated to how much mental and emotional benefit young people get from nature.
Bottom line? For young people to enjoy the mental and emotional healing nature offers, they have to feel like they belong there.
Learning how to nature
It maybe seems silly that we have to learn how to be connected to nature. But a sense of belonging takes time and practice. Just like you wouldn’t expect someone who doesn’t know how to swim to enjoy being thrown into the deep end of the pool, so we cannot throw young people into nature and expect them to enjoy it if they don’t know how.
So, what exactly does a connection with nature mean? In the study, they defined nature connection as a cognitive and experiential relationship with nature, one that involves feeling responsible for nature. Other definitions say that nature connection indicates how comfortable a person feels in nature, how much they feel like they are a part of the natural world.
Turns out, we must train young people how to be in nature. When they start to feel a sense of belonging within nature, that is when they really can take in, sustain, and build upon the mental and emotional health nature offers.
As the coauthor of the study mentioned above, Nils Peterson, says, “If you’ve prepared students, and they’re comfortable in nature, then it works in helping them maintain their well-being.”
Now we know the research. So, how do move forward and teach a connection with nature?
1. Make daily contact with the natural world
The most successful athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs will tell you that making a daily habit is essential to reaching goals. The same is true for our nature connection goal.
It’s easy to make excuses about why we can’t spend time in nature. But the reality is that nature is everywhere – we don’t need to travel to find it.
Do not wait for grand nature outings to get young people outside – simply make it a habit to get in contact with the natural world every day.
Grow plants outside and around your home and have your teens/pre-teens be responsible for them. This provides a level of care that will encourage them to enter the natural environment regularly.
Take a daily walk as a family. Science has proven that daily walks help reduce stress and improve concentration.
Pay attention! Just naming the trees, insects, or animals seen on your regular commute brings the natural world into focus.
Encourage your teen to make plans outdoors when spending time with friends.
2. Know the names
When we learn someone’s name, they transform from a mere stranger to someone who has a story. For many of us, this is the first step in building connection with another human being.
Knowing nature’s name is equally as important for creating connection. A 2015 study by Cox and Gaston discovered that people’s enjoyment of birds increased when they were able to identify them. Being able to name a tree or an insect also encourages further curiosity and questions about them – the same way asking a person’s name leads to questions about where they’re from and what they do.
There are many amazing and inexpensive resources today for nature identification. The National Wildlife Federation has an entire page of nature identification apps organized by species. Merlin, created by the Cornell Lab, is one of the top bird identification apps and PictureThis is a popular plant ID app. Encourage your young people to download and use these on a daily basis.
Why doom scroll when we all can nature scroll?!
3. Share nature experiences
Social media has made it easier than ever to share how we view the world . . . with the world! And this is important when it comes to connecting with nature.
A 2020 study by the National University of Singapore analyzed 31,500 social media photos from 185 countries and discovered that images of nature were more likely to contain the hashtags #fun and #vacations than they were to contain hashtags #daily or #routines. This reveals two things: that we pursue moments in nature connected with happy and significant memories and that we don’t consider nature part of a daily routine.
It's important to make both true! We know through research that we are connected to something more when we share that experience with others. Getting young people to communicate their nature experiences with others through photography, painting, singing, or story-telling will help them deepen their own connection to nature. And helping them make this sharing part of their daily routine will help them see connection with nature as part of every-day life.
4. Join NJIN (shameless plug!)
There is no better teacher than Mother Nature – and NJIN exists to give her center stage.
NJIN was built on a vision of experiential learning. We wanted to create a place where young people could literally place their hands on physical, tangible realities and learn how to make connections between head learning and the physical world.
Nature is the best place for this type of learning to occur for several reasons.
·Everything comes from nature. There is no lesson we teach in a classroom that does not already exist in the natural realm.
The natural world instructs quietly. There is no lecture. Because of this, students learn how to hone observational skills, become aware of the organic questions that come up when they are in wonder, and discover answers for themselves.
There is no shame. Learning in nature takes away a lot of the human hierarchy and competition that has evolved in many educational environments. This leaves students room to explore, experiment, fail, and succeed without fear of judgement or ridicule.
We are here to help young people learn how to be in nature. Through our programs and curricula, we maintain a balanced diet of fieldwork and study with lessons on how to sit quietly, meditate, observe, and take in information from the natural realm.
Building a connection with nature takes time. We are committed to continually evolving with nature and making spaces for young people to learn how to belong in this beautiful, natural world.