NEWS

Investing in Nature is Increasingly Important, Despite Teens Declining Interest

Children playing on logs in woods

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study notes that kids’ interest in nature lessens as they become teens.
  • The onset of puberty, along with other activities and technology, may all contribute to the waning interest.
  • Parents can offer opportunities for kids to enjoy nature and set an example for them to follow.

According to a recent report by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming temperatures will continue to rise to dangerous levels without intervention. In the coming years, significant reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions can make a big difference.

The next generation will have a significant responsibility in caring for the planet and preserving the beauty of nature. But according to a new study, teens’ low interest in nature may be a cause for concern. A recent study published in Plos One, finds that by the time children become teenagers, their interest in nature wanes.

Such insights may be essential to address when looking to deal with climate control issues in the future.

About the Study

Researchers from The University of Sydney and Swinburne University of Technology recruited 1,269 students, ages 8 to 14. The students came from 16 schools located in Sydney, Australia. Participants responded to an online survey across four weeks in March 2017. Researchers garnered responses from 1,037 of the youth who answered at least 90% of the questions.

The questions were designed to help researchers gauge the kids' interest in nature. The survey aimed to discern the extent of the kids' relationships with nature, including whether they have a sense of oneness with nature, a responsibility towards the planet, and compassion towards wild creatures. The kids were also asked whether they donate money to charities or volunteer for activities that help preserve nature.

The findings note that for children ages 8 to 11, one out of two felt strongly connected to nature. However, in the older age group, only one in five teenagers echoed that same connection.

In addition to age discrepancies between those passionate about nature and those not, gender was a noteworthy factor. One in five boys expressed an ardent connection with nature, compared to one in three girls who claimed strong attachment.

The study authors note that the diminishing interest in nature may not be long-term and impact all teens. But the findings provide insight into how kids view nature and the future implications of their values.

Teens and Nature

The difference between a child's interest in nature and a teen's interest in nature may allude to a dark future for our planet and future generations. However, researchers recommend exercising caution.

“From our perspective, you should be alert but not alarmed about the adolescent dip in connection to nature," notes Ryan Keith, a PhD candidate from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney, and lead author of the study. "There are several potential causes, some of which are less avoidable than others." He notes that natural causes, such as the onset of puberty and hormonal changes, could contribute to teens’ changing interests.

Experts note other causes could include typical adolescent activities, such as sports, jobs, and spending time with friends, which could take more of teens’ attention. And of course, screens and technology vie for their attention.

Residing in an area with little visible greenery could also be a consideration. But the study authors note that urban surroundings don’t equate to a lack of interest in nature, with 28% of the urban students they surveyed noting a solid connection.

“Our results show that living in a city is not a one-way ticket to 'nature-deficit disorder' for our children,” Keith states.

Nature's Impact on Mental Health

The effects of nature on our health and well-being are innumerable. A study published in Proceedings of National Sciences of the United States of America provides a correlation between nature and positive mental health. The findings stated that spending time in parks, forests, and other green spaces as a child lowered the risk of developing a number of mental health disorders as an adolescent and during adulthood.

The American Heart Association notes that spending time in nature reduces stress. It can also help with anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Physically, fresh air and time outdoors boosts the immune system. It can even increase the ability to focus, including in children with ADHD.

Kids’ interest in nature is not just beneficial to them, but to others, and the world as a whole.

“When we teach kids about different environments—and the impacts humans are having—and kids get to experience them firsthand, there will logically follow a public interest in protecting the resources that are ultimately selfish to protect," explains Jennifer Rivers Cole, PhD, a faculty member in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Boston College and the Harvard Graduate School of Sustainability. "We can't have clean food, clean air, water, or soil, and biodiversity without more thorough environmental protections."

Cindi Smith-Walters, PhD

Having a citizenry that can make scientifically informed decisions when they vote, etc., is vital. Emotional decisions or worse no decisions regarding environmental quality will lead to more global problems.

— Cindi Smith-Walters, PhD

It’s important to help kids see the big picture and recognize why their interest in nature is important.

“Humans are having a greater and greater effect on the environment—pollution, waste, climate change, etc," notes Cindi Smith-Walters, PhD, a former professor of biology at Middle Tennessee State University. "Having a citizenry that can make scientifically informed decisions when they vote is vital. Emotional decisions, or worse no decisions, regarding environmental quality will lead to more global problems."

Keeping Kids Connected to Nature

It is vital to help kids maintain an interest in nature. There are a number of ways that parents can play a part.

Spend time outdoors doing fun activities. Catching frogs, touching leaves, observing animals in their natural habitat can all bring an appreciation for the great outdoors.

Go camping. Teens can incorporate friends into their adventure and make it cool to be outdoors.

Visit places that focus on the beauty of nature. Botanical gardens and nature centers are great places to start.

Make enjoying the great outdoors into a family affair. Go kayaking, biking, or on a hike.

Check out a local national park. Make it a vacation destination.

Parents can also set an example for their teens. Recycling and volunteering to help clean up the community show that you are passionate about taking care of the environment, and that interest can rub off on them as well.

What This Means For You

We all have a part to play in caring for our planet. While the study notes teens’ interest in nature seems to be waning, the good news is there are ways to combat the trend. Providing a good example for kids to follow in caring for the planet and enjoying nature can be beneficial now and in the future.

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3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sixth Assessment Report. 2021

  2. Keith RJ, Given LM, Martin JM, Hochuli DF. Urban children’s connections to nature and environmental behaviors differ with age and gender. Clarke T-K, ed. PLoS ONE. 2021;16(7):e0255421.

  3. Engemann K, Pedersen CB, Arge L, Tsirogiannis C, Mortensen PB, Svenning J-C. Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood. PNAS. 2019;116(11):5188-5193.