In a recent BLISS blog, we argued that outdoor nature education programmes in primary schools can help combat eco-anxiety among children. As young people have fewer and fewer direct encounters with nature, they come to fear or misunderstand it. Spending time learning through nature outdoors can help prevent this from happening. But adults can also benefit from being outside: an ongoing project shows that spending time in urban green spaces can enhance the well-being of older adults. To ensure that urban green spaces are suited for intergenerational use, they may need to be adapted.
Sir David Attenborough famously stated that “no–one will protect what they don’t care about, and no-one will care about what they have never experienced”. This is certainly the case for how we experience and relate to nature: nurturing curiosity and a sense of wonder for the living world is not (only) about experiencing the remote wilderness and having sufficient expertise to know enough about it – it is much more about becoming comfortable with, becoming aware of, and developing a sense of unity with nature in our daily lives and through our daily practices.
However, our experiences teaching and raising children have shown us that there is quite a long way to go. The ‘environment’ we aim to save has been reduced to a set of outside factors we can ignore; our walls and virtual reality keep us separated and ‘safe’ from it. When adults have a rare contact with it; the same applies to children.
And so, on a daily basis, we meet children and young people who claim with all their heart that they love trees and that they want to plant new ones “because they allow us to breathe”. But do they care about the old tree in the square which they never climbed, hugged, or raced around? And can they help understand their deep value for human beings and solve environmental problems without having the intimate experience of the living world? In other words, is experiencing nature instead of reading about it in books or learning from others how to protect it necessary for children to truly understand it, love it and act for it?
Good intentions, but too little interaction
Experience Aurélia has had with primary students show that the same who proclaim that they want to save Planet Earth, are also afraid to walk through ivy leaves because they believe they are dangerous, or cannot touch earth with their bare hands (“too dirty”). They want to “fight for the climate”, but freeze in the face of the weather variations of a temperate climate (“it’s rainy”). They want to save pollinators, but run away from each striped insect, winged or not. They dream of saving biodiversity, but want to “kill” weeds and fungi, as they might be dangerous. They are passionate about fighting plastic pollution, but offer plastic goodies at every occasion.
These children are simply scared because the reality of nature is different from what they see trough television or on the internet. They are scared of nature because it provides them with sensations that have become unusual. Their exposure to weather variations, unexpected events, or different subtle sensations has dramatically decreased with the limited ecosystems they actually access, which leads to disgust and fear. This phenomenon is called biophobia, and it is now deeply anchored in the minds of adults and educators alike, who spend 93% of their lives inside buildings or vehicles, and is so well reproduced by the younger generations we raise indoors. They think love and they feel repulsion.
But this can be countered: research shows that children engaged in outdoor activities on a daily basis develop more pro-environmental behaviours, with positive effects on attitudes towards biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Aurélia’s experience working in nature education in Amsterdam confirms this: by developing programmes of regular experience of nature, a virtuous loop in the relationship between humans and living things is quickly established. Children wonder about the old tree that was cut down and the woodpeckers that used to nest there. With students regularly learning outdoors, the green area next to the school has become part of their daily life and identity. The school organises regular clean-up actions to preserve the outdoor learning opportunities.
This committed attitude towards nature then spreads from the children to their families and to the wider community. One community for example is now fiercely trying to protect a neighbouring park from further land artificialization projects, thereby affirming that the patch of nature they enjoy should not serve as a dumping ground for waste or a place for drug addicts – they see it as a place for families, children, and teachers to enjoy. Hence, when we invest in outdoor education – when we foster authentic human-nature connections in our daily urban lives – we show the city’s policy-makers that we value the ecosystem we belong to.
Young and old alike can reconnect
This observation stretches beyond the biophobia of children: we believe that not only children need to reconnect with urban nature, but also (older) adults. A desk review carried out as part of the ongoing AFECO project in which Sylvia is involved shows how urban green spaces benefit older adults. The project aims to empower older adults to apply affordable, age-friendly, and eco-friendly solutions to their own living environments to help them ‘age in place’, i.e. to keep living in their own homes and in their own local environment and community. The project will develop an open e-learning platform aiming to raise awareness and educate older people, (in)formal caregivers and social workers on the practical adjustments and subsidies that exist (e.g. to install a stair-lift, insulate the home to save energy), and the benefits of and ways of caring for the natural environment, for example by having the tiles removed in their gardens, or getting involved in community gardens.
The benefits are shown to be multiple: urban green spaces yield many health benefits, including a longer life expectancy, fewer mental health problems, improved cognitive functioning, and a better mood. Studies have shown that such benefits are particularly important for older adults who often do not have satisfactory alternatives to exercise, socialize, or enjoy nature.
However, the design of parks have long neglected the needs and preferences of older adults. Barriers that prevent older people from using green spaces include poor maintenance, littering, and perceived safety issues. They may also have concerns about inadequate toilet facilities, a lack of seating, and shelter from weather conditions. We believe that these concerns can be addressed by adopting intergenerational design features in which both children and older adults at the very least can enjoy green spaces – preferably together.
To conclude, during this Earth Week 2023, let’s reflect on how each of us can help to ‘invest in our planet’, this year’s theme, by advocating for more and better urban green spaces, especially for children and older adults.
Bixler, R. D., Floyd, M. F., & Hammitt, W. E. (2002). Environmental socialization: Quantitative tests of the childhood play hypothesis. Environment and Behavior, 34(6), 795-818.
Bjerke, T., & Østdahl, T. (2004). Animal-related attitudes and activities in an urban population. Anthrozoös, 17(2), 109-129.
Eagles, P. F., & Muffitt, S. (1990). An analysis of children’s attitudes toward animals. The Journal of Environmental Education, 21(3), 41-44.
Loukaitou-Sideris, A., Brozen, M., & Levy-Storms, L. (2014). Placemaking for an Aging Population: Guidelines for Senior-Friendly Parks. UCLA: The Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/450871hz
Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. (2021). New urban models for more sustainable, liveable and healthier cities post covid19; reducing air pollution, noise and heat island effects and increasing green space and physical activity. Environment International, 157, 106850. Doi:10.1016/j.envint.2021.106850
Soga, M., Gaston, K. J., Yamaura, Y., Kurisu, K., & Hanaki, K. (2016). Both direct and vicarious experiences of nature affect children’s willingness to conserve biodiversity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(6), 529.
Soga, M., Evans, M.J., Yamanoi, T., Fukano, Y., Tsuchiya, K., Koyanagi, T.F. and Kanai, T. (2020). How can we mitigate against increasing biophobia among children during the extinction of experience? Biological Conservation, 242, 108420.
Zhang, W., Goodale, E., & Chen, J. (2014). How contact with nature affects children’s biophilia, biophobia and conservation attitude in China. Biological Conservation, 177, 109-116.
van Hoof, J., Marston, H. R., Kazak, J. K., & Buffel, T. (2021). Ten questions concerning age-friendly cities and communities and the built environment. Building and Environment, 199, 107922. Doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2021.107922
 See Soga et al. (2020).
 See Bixler et al. (2002), Bjerke & Østdahl (2004), Eagles & Muffitt (1990), Soga et al. (2016), and Zhang & Chen (2014).
 see Nieuwenhuijsen (2021) for an extensive review.
 See Loukaitou-Sideris et al. (2014).
 van Hoof et al (2021).
 See Loukaitou-Sideris et al. (2014).
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
About the authors:
Aurélia Chevreul-Gaud develops change management strategies to implement outdoor learning on a daily basis. She is a mentor in nature-based education, creator of the 7 Connection Gateways Pedagogy© and holds a master’s degree in change management. She is also a public speaker – see her TEDx performance. Her current project based in The Netherlands, focuses on integrating outdoor learning into urban teachers’ practices and linking it with the International Baccalaureate Primary Year Programme.
Sylvia I. Bergh is Associate Professor in Development Management and Governance at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), and Senior researcher at the Centre of Expertise on Global and Inclusive Learning and the Research Group on Multilevel Regulation at The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS). Some of her current research focuses on the governance of heatwaves, and from her position at THUAS and with the Research Group on Urban Ageing, she is currently involved in the EU-funded AFECO project.
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