In this post Rachelle Gould, People and Nature Associate Editor, explores Louise Chawla’s new article ‘Childhood nature connection and constructive hope: A review of research on connecting with nature and coping with environmental loss‘ – out today!
If you care about young people, care about nature, or care about the relationships between young people and nature, you should read Louise Chawla’s new article. The article plays an important role in People and Nature, as it summarizes an extensive body of work on a subset of that nexus that is both large and crucial for transitions toward sustainable futures: young people and nature. According to conservation lore, childhood is when people develop attachments to nature that then influence identities, values, and actions for decades to come. To what extent is this true? What factors are at play? The article answers these questions via a summary of research and concrete, applicable guidance for those who interact with or serve youth in many capacities – from environmental education providers to school administrators to government officials to parents.
Dr. Chawla is a recognized and beloved expert on children and nature, and this article makes it clear why. The article provides an insightful and comprehensive survey of what we know about two specific topics: children’s connection to nature, and children’s reactions to environmental harms. Indeed, the combination of those two topics comprises one of Chawla’s macro insights in the paper. She points out that research on “connection to nature” (a well-established psychological construct) focuses almost exclusively on the positive aspects and consequences of connections to nature. She then notes that anyone who works with children is likely aware that many young people today, when they consider the state of the natural world, feel not (only) “warm and fuzzy” feelings of connection, but (also) anxiety and despair. She accordingly structures the paper around two primary constructs: connection to nature in children, and children’s responses to environment-inspired anxiety or despair.
Chawla describes these two constructs and what we know about them, but doesn’t stop there. She also lays out fascinating pathways to and from those constructs – she summarizes, for example, factors that likely lead to connection to nature and the implications of converting ecological despair into hope. Through these pathways, she builds process-based stories around the paper’s core concepts. She summarizes research that reveals how connection to nature forms in children (and what impedes it); the ways that connection to nature impacts children; and the action-related consequences of connection to nature. She also describes the much more recent (and therefore less developed) research on ecological despair. This research explores how those negative feelings can be dealt with in healthy ways and, if possible, channeled into empowering concepts such as “constructive hope” (a term coined by Maria Ojala (2015)).
The paper visuals complement the smooth, clear, and engaging text. Chawla uses her experience and insight to summarize the tomes of information in the article in a series of tables and figures. These visuals can inspire hours of reflection and discussion; they collectively serve as an effective and information-dense graphical abstract for the paper. I know I will return to them often. I predict that both the visuals and the article will serve many people as go-to references for years to come.
Chawla addresses a very important area of research on children and nature: the diversity (or more accurately, relatively low levels of diversity) of study subjects and study contexts. She notes existing work with populations such as residents of dense urban centers, rural residents, and Indigenous communities, but also observes that that vast majority of the research is with populations in Western, less-dense urban or suburban contexts. She ends the piece with a crucial call for expanded work in this area: “A few studies covered here originate in Asia, Latin America and indigenous communities, but only a few. … it is critical to understand cultures of connection in all contexts, beginning with their development in childhood.”
The expansive article has nuggets that will likely pique the interest of people with many different foci and lenses on these issues. One lens that the article piqued for me was that of relationality (much of my research addresses relational values (e.g., Chan, Gould & Pascual 2018)). The importance of relationships is evident in multiple places in the piece; here are two. First, Chawla goes back to a foundation of relational values thinking in her description of how connection to nature can benefit children; she notes that philosopher Martha Nussbaum “proposed that affiliation with nature—being able to live with concern for, and in relation to, animals, plants and the world of nature—has an essential value in itself, as well as supporting healthy development in other dimensions of life.” This hearkens back to the first presentation of the relational values concept as it is currently discussed in environmental scholarship: Barbara Muraca’s (2011) article introducing the concept. Second, Chawla discusses the role that relationality plays in Indigenous communities in particular.
Thus, Chawla reminds us that in many worldviews, it is not childlike, fanciful, or frivolous to attribute “life, agency, intentionality and personhood” to more-than-human entities. For this and many of other insights, I am grateful to have this article as a resource and inspiration. I hope it serves the same role for you.
Chan KM, Gould RK, Pascual U. 2018. Editorial overview: Relational values: what are they, and what’s the fuss about? Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 35: A1–A7.
Muraca B. 2011. The map of moral significance: A new axiological matrix for environmental ethics. Environmental Values 20: 375–396.
Ojala M. 2015. Hope in the Face of Climate Change: Associations With Environmental Engagement and Student Perceptions of Teachers’ Emotion Communication Style and Future Orientation. The Journal of Environmental Education 46: 133–148.