Last edited 03 Sep 2021

Barriers to nature engagement in young people


[edit] Why young people are not engaging with nature

However, despite the strong evidence base and logistical arguments for why nature is a good solution to help boost wellbeing in Surrey, young people in the county, and all over England, are not taking advantage of this valuable resource. In fact, their engagement with the outdoors is decreasing. This is concerning, as it means that many youths are suffering despite easy solutions that would help to reduce it.

The following section discusses key reasons why young people are not accessing nature anymore in the hope of highlighting areas of focus for efforts that aim to increase usage and harness the natural environment for the wellbeing of the younger members of society.

[edit] Young people are accessing nature less

Generally, in the UK, data has suggested that as children enter adolescence, their scores on the nature connectedness index (NCI), a tool used to measure the “affective, cognitive and experiential factors related to our belonging to the natural world” (Richardson et al., 2019, p. 2), drops precipitously.

The pattern can clearly be seen in Figure 8, in which NCI scores decrease from the age of 7, at a mean of 64, to at least 15, when it has fallen to 47. Although it then begins to increase slightly from 16-18 years old, it doesn’t return to previous levels until ages 31-40, at which an average of 63 is scored.

Nature connection index.png

Figure 8. Mean NCI scores across the lifespan. N=3919, data from MENE report. Reprinted from A measure of nature connectedness for children and adults: validation, performance, and insights (p. 7) by Richardson et al., 2019: Sustainability.

Feeling connected to nature is positively correlated with the amount of exposure one has to natural environments, particularly as a child (Pensini et al., 2016) which suggests that the low scores may represent a nature deficit. Developmental changes associated with becoming an adult, such as a re-evaluation of the self and ones goals or beliefs, or situational factors like moving to a new school have all been recognised as possible explanations (Richardson et al., 2019).

Connection to nature has also been positively correlated with subjective wellbeing and happiness in both children and adults (Piccininni et al., 2018; Wood & Smyth, 2019; Zelenski & Nisbet, 2014), so this considerable reduction in NCI for young people is concerning.

Another potential influence on the drop in NCI scores is the current “technology focussed generation” in which nature is not considered immediately relevant (Richardson et al., 2019, p. 13). It also likely partly explains the reductions in outdoor usage seen in children under the age of 16 over the past six years (Figure 9).

Spending time outdoors.png

Figure 9. Children spending time outside with and without adults. Data collected from surveys conducted every year from 2013/14 until 2018/19. Survey question asked about whether time was spent in nature the previous month. Reprinted from Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment: Children and young people report (p. 7) by Natural England, 2019, London: Natural England.

The results of a government survey (Natural England, 2019) revealed that in 2013/14, 78% respondents under 16 years old accessed the outdoors with adults. The number then decreased, fluctuating slightly between 2014 and 2018, before dropping to a value of 72% in 2018/19. A similar pattern is seen for time spent outside without adults, which has declined steadily from 22% in 2013/14 to 17% in 2018/19.

These reductions in outdoor usage are more extreme in teenagers, as, although the amount of time spent playing outside with friends has remained the same for 6-9 year olds since 2013/14, the percentage of 10-12 year old who do so has dropped from 26% to 15%. The same pattern is observed in those aged 13 to 15, in which a decrease of 8% (from 38% to 30%) occurred over this time frame (Natural England, 2019).

Although Surrey is the most wooded county in the UK (Surrey County Council, 2008) and home to the Surrey Hills AONB, a recent report suggests that this is not a relevant selling point for young people. The data showed that between 2009 and 2019, 29% adults aged 25-44 visited an AONB compared to only 9% of those aged 16-24 (Natural England, 2019).

Additionally, only 7% of young people in this age range in Surrey access open space for exercise or health reasons compared to the national average of 25% (Community Foundation for Surrey). It highlights that we need to focus our efforts on advertising what is available in Surrey, and how it can help, to increase usage in young people, as the disconnection to the natural environment in the county may be even more extreme than in other areas (Community Foundation for Surrey, 2017).

[edit] Barriers to young people accessing nature

The behaviours of parents have a significant influence on those of children and young people, as demonstrated in a recent report. The data shows for children under 16 who live with adults who visit nature weekly or more, 80% did the same. In contrast, if adults visited nature less than once a month, the majority (61%) of children also showed this infrequency (Natural England, 2019).

Accordingly, Stephanie Thorlby, from Sayers Croft, mentions the importance of educating parents about the advantages of accessing the outdoors so they can encourage it in their children. Rob Squirrell, also from Sayers Croft, concurs, emphasising that it is not only relevant for children and young people who live in urban areas. He explains how “there are many children locally whose parents don’t take them outside at the weekends, and they get home from school and are glued to a screen. They are just as nature-deprived as inner city kids.”

[edit] Parent perceptions and restrictions

Parental fears about nature, which are highly influential and potentially restrictive (Munoz, 2009), play a large role in preventing them from encouraging their kids to go outside. Particularly as many hold the belief that society is more dangerous now than when they were younger, meaning they often feel the need to enforce several rules about where their children can go unsupervised (Tandy, 1999). For example, one survey found that 42% of children aged 7-16 were not allowed to go to a local park without being accompanied by their parent (Playday, 2007).

Jake Curtis, Deputy CEO of Jamie’s Farm, describes how there is “a huge amount of fear surrounding safeguarding of children”, which prevents parents feeling comfortable even in letting them attend unknown areas with youth workers. As a result, “young people are less likely to be allowed to go off and enjoy nature”.

The concept of “stranger danger”, the fear of others in society harming their children, has been cited as the greatest parental concern. The large publicisation of certain distressing instances in which children have been abducted or abused heavily contribute to these worries. They make unfavourable situations seem much more common than they really are, when in reality, for example, a child is more at risk of sexual abuse in their own home than outside (Moss, 2012). As a result, parents are likely to take extreme measures to avoid the worst, increasingly constraining their children’s freedom.

Another topic of apprehension for parents, traffic dangers, also prompts many to insist on only allowing outside play when a suitable adult is around to accompany them (Playday, 2007).

This pattern of constant supervision is largely restrictive (Moss, 2012), especially considering the increasingly busy lives of parents. For example, an international study found that although 73% parents surveyed said their children would prefer to play outside if given the choice, only 58% did in their free time, with 72% watching TV instead (Singer, Singer, D’Agostino & DeLong, 2009).

Jake Curtis describes how this is amplified for children living in inner-city environments, where countryside access is limited. Parents often don’t want their children going outside alone, as it is considered dangerous, but due to work commitments, they usually cannot dedicate much time to supervising them. However, Stephanie Thorlby notes that even in rural areas, the busyness of parents restricts access with nature, which takes a toll on their engagement with the natural world.

Beverley Cook, founder of Huckleberries nurture farm, agrees, stating that one of the main reasons that children who attend her service are disconnected from nature is because “the parents are hugely busy”. She says it is particularly true when they “don’t see the benefits of nature” themselves, so don’t feel the need to make time for it.

Despite the fact that parent rules are usually made with the “best of intentions” (Louv, 2005, p. 115), this overprotective culture has been criticised as encouraging a “zero risk childhood” (Gill, 2012). Karsten (2005) describes how modern children are an “indoor/backseat generation”, in which parents are always with them. It means the majority of experiences of the outdoors are seen on electronic screens, or through the window of a car.

A recent article by Child in the City, an independent foundation working to improve the rights and wellbeing of children in Europe, describes how “this risk averse culture is actually harming kids rather than protecting them as it is contributing to them having a far more coddled childhood, leading to a lack of independence later in life” (Kennedy, 2018). Similarly, the former Chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive suggests it is detrimental to children’s “preparation for adult life” (Bunyan, 2011).

In order to address the issue of disengagement with nature, organisations must be “responsive to the psychological and practical barriers that prevent people from benefitting from and contributing positively to their natural environment” (Natural England, 2014, p. 65). Several obstacles have been highlighted as significant. For example, Mark Sears, Chief Wild Officer at The Wild Network, told the Guardian that “parental fear, reduction of play time in schools and lack of green space” are all key issues (Leach, 2018). In addition, cost of outdoor activities and lack of time have been identified as contributing factors (Outdoor Nation, 2010). More detailed explanations of the reasons for the decline in nature engagement in young people are discussed below.

[edit] The expectations of society

Louv (2008) notes that young peoples’ lives are becoming busier and more structured, which facilitates the transition from direct experiences of nature, to indirect experiences, such as via media.

Alison Greenwood, CEO of Dose of Nature, agrees with this concept, explaining how increasing pressures put on younger generations are having a detrimental influence on engaging with the outdoors. She says young people “are expected to do as much as they can, as quickly as possible”. Nature is thus neglected because “it is slow, and always there”, so they don’t think they’re achieving anything when they are in it, and it becomes less of a priority.

According to a survey conducted by Outdoor Nation, responses to a question asking why young people don’t spend time outside included “pressures for success and doing well in school, and the increasing load of homework at a young age compete for time outside” and that “an increasingly stressful and pressure-filled environment to perform well in school and your career also leads to a skewed perception of how valuable time is spent” (Outdoor Nation, 2010, p. 10).

However, even if young people made the time to go outside, the subtle influence of social norms also significantly limits their engagement with the natural environment. According to Alison Greenwood, young people have been taught to avoid it. Strict rules like “stay off the grass” and “stick to the path” constrain the amount of direct exposure young people have with such nature, and they get used to viewing it from a distance.

Dr William Bird (MBE) described in an interview for Outdoor Nation how “‘What we’ve done is we’ve put Nature over there – we’ve put a fence around it and said, ‘That’s Nature’ – this is why we’re now strangers to each other” (Moss, 2012). Stephanie Thorlby elaborates on the significance of these rules, suggesting they even produce a type of fear. For example, she recalls instances of children that have come to her nature activity sessions and are scared of standing on wet grass because they have been taught to avoid it. She therefore emphasises that “we need to encourage children that it is OK to stand on wet grass or go off the path”.

Enforcing multiple rules about how to engage with nature also translates the experience from “spontaneous” to “organised”, which puts people off if they think that “they need special skills and equipment to take part” (Moss, 2012, p. 17). This is likely to be an even greater deterrent for the vulnerable members of society, such as those with low socio-economic status, or disabilities.

Moreover, Alison Greenwood explains how society has “turned their back on nature” and migrated indoors. It is now “set-up in a way that allows us to access everything we need inside, almost instantaneously”.

The inventions of heating and air conditioning create the ideal indoor environment, so people become less tolerant to any variation, such as high/low temperatures, or wind and rain. “The practicalities and biases about when it is appropriate to be outside severely restricts our usage of nature” says Alison.

Being in the comfort of home is also considered “safe”, which means young people are less likely to venture away from the security (Harden, 2000). It largely explains why we now spend an average of 90% of our time indoors (Playle, 2018).

The acceptance of an inside existence also means that spending time outside is considered to be “abnormal” (Moss, 2012). This is especially relevant for populations of young people, who are trying to establish their place in the world and fit in (Crosnoe, 2011), acting as a large deterrent for engaging with the natural environment.

[edit] Lack of knowledge and fear of the unknown

In addition, the result of parent regulations and social norms mean the outdoors represents the unknown for many young people. Members of the Leatherhead Youth Project (LYP) describe how this unfamiliarity “is unknown and seems scary”, producing feelings of fear or anxiety. This is, in part, due to the large lack of knowledge about the natural world, which Herbet (2009) has referred to as a “generational amnesia”. Rob Squirrell adds that “even in leafy Surrey there are many children who don’t know enough about the outdoors”.

In order to rectify this, LYP believe that young people “need to be taught how to access it, and the benefits it can provide”. For example, they explain that if a young person is dealing with difficult emotions, they should know that they can “go for a run or throw a stick and let out all this negativity. You can deal with it in many more ways that you can’t do indoors”.

LYP also argues that teaching them activities they can do in the outdoors will make them much less likely to act antisocially, with drugs or knives. However, they need someone to teach them “the basic knowledge and skills”, suggesting it should be “implemented within society and the education system”.

One way they propose improvement is through “training youth leaders or teachers in outdoor engagement, so they can pass on this passion and excitement”. A similar argument has been made by Sir David Attenborough in the past, as he attempts to stress the importance of the younger generation learning about nature, so they feel more inclined to conserve it. He said “The wild world is becoming so remote to children that they miss out… and an interest in the natural world doesn’t grow as it should. Nobody is going to protect the natural world unless they understand it” (Colwell, 2019).

The lack of knowledge is especially relevant within the context of black and ethnic minority communities, of which are least likely to access and utilise the natural environment. For example, Figure 10 shows that whereas 70% White children spent time outside at least once a week, only 56% Black, Asian or minority ethnic background did so.

Ethnicity chart.png

Figure 10. Percentage of children under 16 years old spending time outside at least once a week by ethnicity. Data collected from a survey conducted over 2018/19. Black, Asian and White ethnicities were included. Reprinted from Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment: Children and young people report (p . 15) by Natural England, 2019, London: Natural England.

This may be, in part, due to the cultural associations of the “great outdoors”, which has been “closely tied to a ‘white British’ identity”. These connotations mean that anybody who isn’t white British can often feel unwelcome (Pitt, 2016).

A Guardian article collating the opinions of well-known ethnic minority individuals revealed this same argument. Kwame Kwei-Armah, a playwright, described how “Most people from the black community felt they were not in the same social class as the stereotype of the affluent country squire”, suggesting that they didn’t feel they belonged in the countryside.

Additionally, because of the barriers preventing ethnic minorities accessing the natural environment, when they do, it often leads to staring and comments about their race. For example, Shaks Ghosh, Chief Executive of homeless charity Crisis, mentioned “I do feel different – people turn around and look at me’, where the author Andrea Levy describes how “when I see another black person in the countryside I do a double take and we look at each other out of shock” (Prasad, 2004). It demonstrates how the culture of the great outdoors is so closely linked in with a specific identity that it is largely preventing others from feeling comfortable in using it, and efforts need to be made to ensure greater inclusivity.

In addition, an early study (Ghodiwala, Gough, Johnson & Samat, 1993) suggested that the views of the English countryside of first generation migrants were “limited and mainly negative”, assuming it would be “dull, boring, grey, foggy and cold” (Natural England, 2005, p.17). On top of this, due to cultural differences in their home land, migrants often associate the countryside with “hard labour rather than leisure” or “unpredictable and dangerous things” (Natural England, 2005, p. 18).

Hanif Kureishi, playwright, film maker and novelist, also describes how “it is totally ridiculous for middle- class Indians to walk”, due the strong connotations with peasantry (Prasad, 2004). We know that parent ideas about the natural environment have a significant influence on child usage (Natural England, 2019).

So, even if ethnic minority children are second or third generation immigrants, cultural beliefs of their parents or grandparents are still likely to influence their behaviour. Proposals have been made for greater awareness of accessible natural areas, and what to expect once you arrive there. In addition, better education for ethnic minorities as to what is a socially acceptable way to utilise these resources is a recommended solution to increase the currently limited confidence they have in visiting these places (Askins, 2004).

[edit] Accessibility restraints

Another key barrier preventing access to nature is socio-economic status. Often, areas of deprivation have less local green space than those of greater wealth (CABE, 2010). This is concerning as it is individuals living in these areas who often cannot afford to travel further from home to access the natural environment.

Consequently, a large disconnect from the natural world is observed in those with lower socio-economic status. For example, 81% of the least deprived children (as assessed using the Index of Multiple Deprivation) under the age of 16 access the natural environment at least weekly, where only 61% in the most deprived areas do so (Figure 11). The children with lower socio- economic status were also more likely to access urban green areas (62%) as opposed to the countryside (30%; Natural England, 2019).

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Figure 11. Percentage of children spending time outside at least once a week by Index of Multiple Deprivation. Data collected from a survey conducted over 2018/19. Adapted from Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment: Children and young people report (p . 14) by Natural England, 2019, London: Natural England.

Surrey is fortunate enough to be described as a “pleasant rural environment” ("Explore the Surrey Countryside - Visit Surrey", n.d.) which means it is more likely there are local areas of nature to enjoy. However, pockets of deprivation in which there is limited green space do exist, which need to be identified. In addition, measures should be taken to help young people that are unaware of nearby nature through spreading awareness and providing practical support (such as funding or transport opportunities) to do so.

Various types of disability also present added challenges regarding access to nature. A report by Natural England in 2008 revealed that, although much improvement has been made since the Disability Discrimination act in 1995, many natural areas are inaccessible due to additional needs. Improvements such as flattening pathways, providing ramps, wooden seats, handrails and steps, widening footpath bridges and making gates easier to open (especially one-handed) were all cited as necessary to increase the number of disabled individuals accessing nature (Natural England, 2008).

In addition, greater support and awareness needs to be raised to educate disabled individuals to the benefits of the countryside. For example, a recent paper suggested that parents of those with autism worry about “inappropriate behaviour, safety issues, phobias, social concerns and others” which often stop them bringing their child into the outdoors (Li et al., 2019).

However, whether an individual has a physical or mental disability, nature has been shown to boost wellbeing (Natural England, 2008), as well as help young people to learn, interact and develop in an inclusive environment (Inclusive Play, 2018). It is therefore important to educate disabled individuals and their families to these advantages and provide opportunities in which they can see for themselves, such as by implementing nature-based engagement into specialised youth clubs.

[edit] What do young people want?

Furthermore, the range of activities may not broad enough to appeal to many young people. Surrey Youth Focus reported that in particular, underrepresented groups are more interested in taking part in non-mainstream activities (Surrey Youth Focus, 2018). Perhaps, if young people had more options as to what they could get involved with, or a greater awareness of what currently exists, they would be more inclined to utilise these natural environments.

LYP stresses that training youth leaders would show young people what they can access and help to solve this problem. Alongside this, sessions that are targeted at particular cultures or religions are needed, to cater for specific needs in the young population (Surrey Youth Focus, 2018).

In addition, some attempts to engage young people in solutions aimed to boost mental health have been criticised as being detached from their views and opinions. A report conducted by Surrey Youth Focus in partnership with Healthwatch Surrey, explained how young people often feel that initiatives aimed to improve their wellbeing are “done ‘to’ them rather than ‘with’ them”. The lack of empowerment means they often feel excluded from the process or like they are part of the issue (Surrey Youth Focus & Healthwatch Surrey, 2018, p. 6).

According to Gary Evans, CEO of The Forest Bathing Institute, to increase outdoor engagement in young people, they “need to have more control over how they use nature”. He also adds that “it is a great way of learning” if they are given some freedom in how they want to engage.

[edit] Technology and social media

The increase in social media usage, especially amongst young people, has been linked to the reductions in time spent in the outdoors (Louv, 2009). A national kids survey conducted by the USDA Forest Service from 2007 to 2009 found that whereas 81.5% children and young people aged 6-19 who didn’t own a computer spent over two hours outside on weekends, only 68.6% of those with a computer did so.

In addition, when asked why children don’t go outside anymore, 48.1% said it was because they were interested in video games, DVDs and TVs, with 47.8% suggesting it was due to an interest in the internet and sending texts etc. This is in comparison to the 20.7% respondents who cited transportation as the main barrier, with 12.9% saying it wasn’t safe enough outside (Larson, Green & Cordell, 2011).

Although this report was conducted several years ago, it shows how, even then, technology was taking up a considerable proportion of young people’s free time and acted as a key barrier to nature access. Additionally, with statistics indicating how worldwide social media use has increased by 9% since only 2018 (Chaffey, 2019), the issue is likely to be even more exaggerated today.

For example, nowadays, the average Internet user spends six hours on a device daily (Kemp, 2018), and over 24% of 15-year olds spend more than this amount of time online every day outside of school hours (OECD, 2017). Much of this is social media use, and according to the Office for National Statistics, over three months in 2017, 96% of individuals aged 16-24 admitted to having accessed social media at least once (ONS, 2017).

The more time young people spend on their devices and online, the less time they have available to spend outside. Worryingly, Rob Squirrell references the recent news headlines that have revealed just how addictive gaming is, which encourages young people to play more and more. The contrast to the outdoors which is “a much slower pace, with far fewer instant rewards” means that it is rarely chosen above the new technologies that are designed to increase consumption.

Beverley Cook describes how this affects young peoples' “ability to ponder. If they’re bored they instantly pick up a phone, computer or iPad, and their boredom goes away. We don’t give our children nowadays the chance to be bored, and the opportunity to make their own entertainment. They lose the ability to be creative and do this”.

This article is an extract from 'Into the Wild' restoring young minds in the Surrey Hills, a report by Genevieve Lebus. Click here to read the full report.

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